The Regression of Safety and the Dangers of Hypercompliance

The Regression of Safety and the Dangers of Hypercompliance – Essential reading


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Thanks to Alan Quilley for sharing this significant piece by Judith Erickson and Dave Rebbit, which makes for “Mandatory Reading”, on his Safety Results blog.

Alan says:

“This is the single most important article for everyone involved and/or committed to achieving Safety Excellence to read! Outstanding work! Every CEO, Senior Management Team, Safety Professional, HR Professional, Safety Committee Member, Father, Mother, Brother, Sister and employees MUST Read this article and help out companies and organizations do a much better job of managing safety! Congratulations Dave & Judith!” – Alan D. Quilley CRSP

Hypercompliance – Too Much of a Good Thing – by Dave Rebbitt and Judith Erickson

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A Few Teasers from the article:


Efforts to improve occupational safety and health began with rules and compliance. Complying with these laws and safety standards greatly improved the workplace. As the understanding of incident causation became more sophisticated, other methods were used to engage employees and involve those on the front line in assessing and mitigating risks and hazards in a more proactive way. As approaches continue to evolve, a new movement is gaining favor that the authors call hypercompliance: a process that consists of enhanced rules exceeding legislated and industry standards. This movement includes an unflinching zero tolerance for errors whereby rule breakers are harshly sanctioned or fired. The major question posed by this article is: Does hypercompliance tend to improve or hinder safety performance? This article examines the evolutionary path that led to hypercompliance and why it appears to be a good solution yet has unintended consequences. Those consequences, although unintentional, defeat the established goal of hypercompliance. The authors examine the gap between academic knowledge and common practice and assumption; to do so, they use established facts based on more than 50 years of study and the successful application of theories in management and behavior.


Hypercompliance is increasing rules and legislated standards to a higher level in order to ostensibly achieve better safety performance. It is a human trait to look at things in terms of structure. If events are not going exactly as planned or there are an unacceptable number of incidents, perhaps something new is needed to get past the current plateau. In such instances, more controls or rules are sometimes added to ensure uniform employee expectations and guidance. Underlying hypercompliance is the belief that more rules, including more stringent ones, will make for a safer workplace. For example, if safe height is 6 ft, it is reduced to 3 ft. If safety glasses are required, goggles will be substituted. If compliance is not 100%, the penalty for noncompliance is raised. Hypercompliance is all about making more stringent rules in select areas and correlating them with zero tolerance for noncompliance.

Hypercompliance: Unintended Consequences

Sending a strong message to the workforce about accountability and communicating clear expectations is often mentioned in safety circles. No doubt, accountability and clear communication are necessary and essential for the system to function. However, what companies intend to communicate often is not what employees actually perceive. One of the greatest examples is committing to zero incidents. Does that mean employers do not want any incidents or that they do not want to hear about any incidents?

The Cult(ure) of Zero

The concept of zero incidents implies that sustained perfection in an innately error-prone system is somehow achievable. This concept, as well as the belief in safety culture, arrived together and dominate the current safety landscape. Belief in zero has a wide base and includes concepts such as zero fatalities, zero injuries or zero incidents (Roughton & Crowley, 1999). This zero concept stirs emotion since employees would agree that they or a loved one should not be injured, thereby becoming the one beyond zero. This has led to the zero-tolerance concept. However, in reality people live inside a fallible human system. Therefore, even though reaching zero is highly admirable it is not a consistently achievable human goal. One problem with the zero goal is that if employees think it is not achievable, they may not be mentally committed to the concept. Setting and reaching a goal means the goal must be achievable. Without a plan to get to zero that has both substance and thought, such goals can become counterproductive (Clemens, 2004; Ormond & Solomon, 2014). This mind-set has set the stage for hypercompliance.

High-Reliability Organizations

Concurrently with hypercompliance, another approach focuses on organizational resilience and high reliability. These organizations push decision making down as far as possible and rely on expertise in the field rather than on rules and punishment. Such organizations are often called learning organizations, as they can recover quickly from problems or incidents. This quick recovery indicates organizational resiliency. They are committed to learning from failure and refuse to simplify what is inherently complicated (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007). High-reliability organizations are those that cannot afford large-scale failures because of the potential catastrophic consequences. This approach has its roots in the study of aircraft carrier flight deck operations, nuclear power plants, hospitals and air traffic control. In each of these instances, small failures must be understood, resolved and learned from before they can become or lead to larger-scale failures. This means paying attention to small failures or weak signals in the system. The organization must be resilient, or able to recover quickly from failures, but it is also expected to learn from failures


Hypercompliance is a step back in time for safety and it flies in the face of all we have learned about human motivation, involvement and resultant safety performance. Much has been learned about human behavior since the days of Taylor. Regressive hypercompliance thinking, with its excessive rules and penalties, is an approach that will not lead to a safer workplace. Getting beyond performance plateaus takes critical thinking and new approaches, including those of an interdisciplinary nature. In evolution, there are many failures for every success. Perhaps it is time to move on.

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