Most people recognise the need for everyone to adhere to basic standards of behaviour in all aspects of life whether in the workplace, the home or out and about. We call these basic standards rules and if someone breaks the rules there is usually some form of retribution – from a mild disapproval or rebuke to more significant outcomes such as a fine or even imprisonment for really serious breaches.

Provided these rules are based on sound judgement and/or risk assessment we tend not to have much of a problem with limits being placed on our personal choice. If, for instance, a certain building on our site is said to require eye protection or a construction compound requires a hard hat we tend to comply. Not just for our own protection but also to set a good example to others so that they too follow the rules. If we contravene these rules we should all be prepared to accept the consequences.

Or should we?

On the one hand we can look at this as being black or white – you are either wearing your glasses or not. Yet surely we would want to understand the causes of the misdemeanour. If someone has a history of blatantly flaunting the rules, chooses not to follow the rules for their own personal benefit (save time, be more comfortable, enjoy the thrill of the increased risk) then most people would probably agree that they deserve to face the full penalty of the law.

Torn paper that reveals the word 'clues' beneath

Yet what if they’re a good worker with a good record who normally follows the rules diligently yet on this one occasion they were displaying the aberrant behaviour? Maybe they walked into the eye protection zone, had already realised their error and were about to take remedial action i.e. step back out or put on the glasses.

If this was you, how would you feel if you were treated in the same way as the repeat offender? To an outside observer, both of these people’s actions look the same. In order to distinguish between the two situations we need to look further. We might call this an investigation into the incident or in the first instance at least we might call it a conversation with the person involved. This difference in actions, based on the circumstances forms the basis of what James Reason called a just culture.

This doesn’t only apply to work-related safety issues but to any comparable situation: our children at home or with citizens in society. You, like many others might have been caught breaking the speed limit whilst driving. You may be a serial speeder who regularly exceeds the given limit whether on a quiet motorway at night or in a built-up area at the end of the school day. If this is the case, whilst you might not be pleased to have your inappropriate behaviour brought into the spotlight – you can hardly complain. On the other had you might be someone who drives 30,000 miles per year and makes a specific point of not exceeding the given limit, whatever the situation – often putting up with comments from family and friends; yet on one occasion due to a short-term lapse in concentration, a fleeting distraction, a failure to recognise the limit or a failure to recognise your current speed, you broke the rules.

None of these reasons justify breaking those rules, but they may help to explain why it happened on this occasion. The equivalent may be that time you walked into the factory and quite out of character you didn’t put the safety glasses on. This deviation from the norm does not make you a bad person – just a person – with the human fallibilities that we are all prone to from time to time.

One of the problems with a fixed speed camera is that it cannot engage with you to understand the cause of your errant behaviour let alone being able to recognise all the exemplary behaviour of the past hundreds or thousands of miles of driving.

Isn’t it a good job that we have insightful and understanding managers, supervisors and safety professionals who can engage with staff and understand their behaviour rather than automatons that simply jump on wayward behaviour and take the same action regardless of the reason or history!