The Compliance Conundrum


imageThe challenge of compliance is also a challenge to critical thinking, this is one of the many paradoxes in risk and safety. When we comply or an organization seeks compliance this is all well and good only while things stay the same. When things change and adaptability is required to keep safe, then compliance becomes a hindrance and cause of a new problem.

Similarly, a SWMS, Checklist, investigation method or risk assessment process designed under one context doesn’t necessarily ensure things are OK if any unforeseen circumstance comes along. The reality is, a compliance culture is not what we want (

Of course, when anything goes wrong the investigation assumes that things go wrong because of non-compliance, that’s how many of the investigation methods on the market train people to think. Using swiss cheese assumptions, looking for the missing linear links rather than assume that work flow is messy and non-linear.

Compliance thinking relies on a range of assumptions about human decision making and personhood, none of which are considered by a behaviourist-cognitivist industry.

In reporting on events we observe that independent thinking is deemed a problem in hindsight bias. The report will then show how workers varied from compliance or were non-compliant so the report finds that there needs to be greater vigilance on compliance across the board. Even in the latest inquiry into deaths in QLD ((, we observe the various biases of investigators who bring the same old assumptions to the table For example: Prof Cliff stated: “They should all be avoidable, with our current level of mature safety culture and effective systems,” he told AAP. Hmmm, if we have a mature safety culture and effective systems, why did something go wrong? See what I mean?

So, there are now calls for a ‘safety reset’ . What will most likely happen will be a reset back to what is known: systems, behaviourist assumptions, hazards, WHS management paperwork and more training; all under the assumption that mistakes happen because of wrong programming on the compliance merry-go-round. When so much is infused with emotive sunk cost (‘it’s a safety crisis’) and political juggling for territory, not much will change.

The trouble is this. The more vigilance and driving for compliance the less workers will be made adaptable, flexible and critical in the way they tackle risk. It will make workers more fragile not anti-fragile (Taleb). Could this be one of the reasons why there has been a spike in fatalities? I bet no one has asked that question! It couldn’t possibly be that all of the excessive systems in the industry are actually a cause of problems.

Unfortunately, the behaviourist-cognitivist mindset already evident in the QLD mining context cannot think out of the old box ( The assumptions about human anthropology are the same. Humans are sill understood as brains-on-bodies and nothing could be further than the truth. The research ignored by the industry’s love affair with behaviourism is also part of the problem.

What the investigation will do, will backward fit the old box behaviourist anthropology on the context and develop findings that validate their assumptions about how humans make decisions. This can already been read into this situation even by who is called in an as ‘expert’ and the discourse surrounding commentary on the events.

In all of the commentary there is this talk about ‘safety culture’ without definition as if anyone knows what that is. Oh, that’s right ‘what we do around here’. More behaviourism. Zero harms leadership seems to be going really well in Queensland (

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

4 Replies to “The Compliance Conundrum”

  1. In NZ the maritime regulator MNZ has a statement on its website that MOSS + HSWA = Safety, MOSS being the application of Maritime Rules with regard to safety systems and approvals, audits and inspections and HSWA being the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. The message is also clearly made that MNZ is a Regulator to ensure compliance not a Maritime Safety Agency. There is not though any definition of what safety is, although when asked the answers range form it is obvious to it is the absence of harms. It is probably more accurate that it is an absence of reported harms which is something different. Activity can then be focussed on compliance and the assumption is this equates to more safety and that better regulation = better safety and as the responsibility of the regulator is to regulate then the issue over safety is the fault of those engaged in the risky activity and can be attributed to not caring or trying hard enough, being lax in assessing risk and hazard or of supervision of those doing the work by those who manage it.

    1. Thanks Charles, many do not see the irony in this kind of stuff which is to be expected in this industry. So keen to claim the word professional but so reluctant to act professionally.
      Your example is a classic example of safety blindness maintained through safety cosmetics. But if critical thought is offered it is deemed as anti-safety because identity is politicised in safety through these many accepted mechanisms that form religious like faith.
      People don’t understand how Zero is such a crucial symbol for activating all this as it creates a no-compromise mindset. In that way no listening to criticism keeps all things the same and the cult stays safely cocooned in its busyness doing nothing.

  2. “Safety” does not really exist; it is a Utopian state that can be wished for but moment by moment, because we are not omniscient or omnipotent, we are always vulnerable to undesirable outcomes. That is part of being alive though; when risk makes sense one does not hold a world view that risk can be eliminated, not should it be. It is understood as a part of being human and a critical part of learning. As Rob infers, when one’s view of people is they are a brain on top of a body that can be programmed with the right system in place, the trajectory is more of the same behaviorist, reductionist, anti-learning solutions. Like a dog chasing its tail.

    1. Dyno, the dog chasing its tail can be very busy and look busy but actually is going nowhere. I read a safety association Vision statement yesterday and it was very much like that. All rhetoric and no vision disguised in the language of vision. Nothing new, nothing forward looking even though the tag for the discourse was ‘moving forward’ ha, but fully committed to zero which is of course the language of stasis, going no where.

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