Broken Windows seems to work

I have written before about the use of Broken Windows theory in an occupational health and safety context.  Earlier this year another OHS professional, Bryan McWhorter, wrote about his success in following this approach.

One advantage of talking about this theory is that it applies a concept from outside the OHS field to affect worker and manager behaviours.  A safety professional can use the theory’s origin story to show a different approach to safety management.  It allows a rationalisation for enforcing safety on those “long hanging” hazards.

The Broken Windows approach certainly will not work at all workplaces or fit with everyone’s safety management system.  As the Wikipedia article notes, it continues to operate on fear, on the breaking of rules and this may not be compatible with where one wants their company’s OHS approach to go, but it seems it can be effective, as long as it is not relied upon for very long.

McWhorter’s article tells of the need to shake safety up in the factory for which he was responsible and Broken Windows helped.  It enforced the use of lower order hazard control methods but also applied this across all levels of the workforce, introducing the concept of safety leadership to some of the managers.

Workplace safety is full of clichés such as “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”, “never walk past a hazard”, “lead by example”.  Weaknesses and anomalies in these can always be identified but in many workplaces these clichés show a fresh approach to safety. This, in itself, is depressing as OHS laws have existed in most countries for over a generation now and safety is still not a normal part of work for many of us.

I reckon the Broken Windows approach will still be one of those new approaches in many workplaces for a while to come.

(Perhaps safety needs to be re-framed as it is such a sill-y and paneful topic – Couldn’t resist the window “dad jokes”)

Kevin Jones

Categories accountability, business, communication, consultation, culture, enforcement, executives, Leadership, OHS, safety

7 thoughts on “Broken Windows seems to work”

  1. It’s interesting to see the comments that the Broken Window theory has no place in OHS. Some writer’s have made the comment that it mirrors ‘The triangle method’, which I assume is meant to be Bird’s Pyramid. Other’s state that it has no place in OHS because it trivializes safety, but I would argue that, dependent on the cultural maturity of the organization involved, there is a definite argument for the use of this theory.

    In a workplace that is firmly on the left of the cultural maturity chart, in the Pathological or Reactive state, the culture is determined by the worker’s attitude to basic safety rules and procedures. Workers who consistently flout basic rules regarding PPE, procedures, house-keeping etc. have been shown to carry forward that same attitude towards critical risk. The human brain has a distinct tendency to follow the herd, especially when it comes to group behavior. If a workplace is one that tolerates minor indiscretions, then that has the potential to develop risk normalization. Supervision acceptance of rule breaking will lower the safety bar, most critically for new or green workers.

    This is not to say that this system should become the foundation of any workplace safety system, it should not, as it will eventually be considered as something that constantly nettles personnel and they will become jaded and negative towards all safety initiatives. However, most places won’t need to continue with the system, as the cultural maturity will have improved with compliance seen as the right way to do business. This is especially true in developing nations, where OHS is still considered an optional extra in the workplace.

  2. Kevin,
    Unfortunately this theory does not work. Well my perspective is that one should not even try it for even for a short period of time as it takes away the focus and seriousness of employing effective safety measures. “Life is precious”

  3. Kevin, unfortunately broken windows theory has a focus on tackling trivial risks as somehow (no evidence) a pathway to managing risk in general. Unfortunately safety suffers already from an excess in focus on the trivial and doesn’t need any more help to exacerbate this condition, neither is fear a strategy for learning.

  4. Kevin,
    I have a nuanced view of this approach:
    1. It’s a good idea to get everything cleaned up and all the messy little bits of a facility sorted out. It’s amazing what can be achieved with a skip, a pressure cleaner and a bucket of paint. It’s good to reestablish a baseline of what is acceptable and what’s not.
    2. I don’t believe it helps prevent the serious incidents that occur – in some ways the theory mirrors the triangle model, fix the minor stuff and the more serious risks will be automatically managed. We’ve known for decades that that doesn’t work. The fact is the causes of serious injuries and fatalities are always more complex and more convoluted then can be addressed by keeping things spotless.
    3. It’s respectful to provide a half-decent workplace and many could learn from this.

    1. Richard, I agree with everything you have written. I am not a fan of the “Safety Sheriff” who says “where’s your earplugs” “Tie up your shoelaces”…. but I have rarely seen these operate without OHS supervision or as a general safety approach. I think that in some businesses, probably small with an intransigent workforce, the Broken Windows can work.

      But it is also about getting that business owner’s attention and to breach their rigid safety thinking with an approach that seems to make sense.

      I am definitely not advocating Broken Windows as the dominant approach for all workplaces. I have written about this theory several times before on this blog (put “Broken Windows” in the search function).

      McWhorter’s article is about his own experience and how it worked… for him. Even though it is an immature approach to OHS I still think it is worth trying in some workplaces.

      Thanks very much for contributing.

  5. Hi Kevin,

    Unfortunately the broken windows theory has not stood up well to closer scrutiny in its original use. Many other factors at play.

    I wonder if that also applies to OHS?

    Tom Huber

    1. Tom I suspect it does apply to OHS. McWhorter’s article shows his application in one factory in specific circumstances. I think Broken Windows would affect change but not for long and that a more tailored approach would be required to continue to progress. I kept thinking about all the small businesses that I have visited for whom this approach could work but, again, in the short term.

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