Risk vs Rule Based Safety

Updated: Jun 25, 2019

Most things in the safety world can be considered as one of two types of safety, rule-based safety or risk-based safety. Although there is a time and place for both types of safety and they are often seen as two separate entities, the two can over lap. This over lapping of rule-based safety and risk-based safety is of particular importance to the safety professional as it can help them when communicating safe work practices to their workforce.

Because it is Written

Where rule based safety can be understood as “do it because it is written”, risk based safety requires a bit more thought and understanding of the hazards and the probability that a given consequence will occur. Using ladder safety as an example we can see both rule-based safety and risk-based safety at work. Workers must wear a harness and be tied off at heights above six feet in many provinces in Canada. Why ‘must’ they? Because their respective provincial safety regulations state it. For many company’s this is the message that gets communicated – wear a harness and tie off because the law says so. This works for a large portion of the workforce.

One Step Further

What about at five and a half feet or even four feet? What if the ladder is on a moving structure such as a boat? With only the rule-based safety used in the communication of safe work practices it is easy to see how a worker who follows their company’s safety guidelines may not opt to tie off when working at a height of five feet even when unfavorable conditions (i.e. high winds) could result in them sustaining an injury from a fall. However, if risk-based safety is used to explain the hazards associated with working at heights and the worker is taught how the probability of sustaining an injury from a fall (the consequence) will increase when environmental conditions change, then the worker will be better equipped to make the smart decision and tie off at a lower height even though the rules don’t force him to do so.

Reflection On Rules and Risk

Whichever way safe work practices are communicated it is the result of that communication that is important. To be effective it is likely that your method of communication must be varied and tailored to your audience but clear and consistent in it’s underlying theme, completing work in a safe manor.

  1. Is your company’s safety communication primarily rule-based or risk-based?

  2. Which of the two types of safety do you think the general workforce responds to best?

  3. What is your best story of when a worker didn’t use risk-based safety and justified their actions because the rules allowed them to proceed?