The Safety of Work

Ep. 2 Why do people break rules?

Episode Summary

On this episode, we discuss why people break safety rules at work. Tune in to hear our discussion about the reasons safety rules are often broken.

Episode Notes



“In all safety-critical environments, there are endless possibilities for individuals actions to influence the work outcomes.”

“There are a lot of safety academics who don’t even like that construction of thinking about safety in terms of rule…”

“If you give people freedom, sometimes you’re not going to like where they take that freedom.”


Iszatt-White, M. (2007). Catching them at it: An ethnography of rule violation. Ethnography, 8(4), 445-465.

Episode Transcription

David: You’re listening to the Safety of Work podcast episode 2. Today, we’re asking the question, why do people break rules? Let’s get started.

Hey, everyone. My name is David Provan and I’m here with Drew Rae. We’re from the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University. Welcome to the Safety of Work podcast. If this is your first time listening, then thanks for coming. The podcast is produced every week and the show notes can be found at

In each episode, we ask an important question in relation to the safety of work or the work of safety and examine the evidence surrounding it. Drew, tell us about today’s question.

Drew: Dave, the question we’re going to ask today is why do people break rules? Or maybe more specifically, why do people break safety rules at work? I think this is an important question because for a long time, we’ve tried to manage the safety and work performance of people by prescriptively describing the way we want them to do things. There’s sort of an underlying assumption that if people follow the safety rules, then they will be safe. Now, there are a lot of reasons why that’s a problem and we’re not going to go into those problems, really today. We want to stick to this simple question of given that there are some rules that are important, why is it that even if we make rules and people understand the rules, people do still seem to break those rules?

It should be really obvious, I think, that in old safety critical environments, there are endless possibilities for individual actions to influence the work outcomes, so when we’ve worked out that there are particular actions that are very undesirable, we’ve put in place processes and rules to eliminate those actions. We need to know whether those process and rules are going to be effective. For that, we need to understand the reasons why people might not follow the processes and rules. For all of the efforts we’ve put in to safety, everything we put in to leadership, culture, communication, and safety awareness, it still happens. There are still safety rules and still people breaking those safety rules. We want to get a little bit deeper into one of the reasons why that happens.

David: Let’s look into some research on this question. The study that I picked for today was performed in 2007 by Marian Iszatt-White of Lancaster University in the UK. The paper is titled, Catching Them at It: An Ethnography of Rule Violation. While this title, Catching Them at It, sounds punitive, I think it’s actually meant to be more descriptive of the ethnographic research method that Iszatt-White employed. Drew, do you want to tell us a little bit about ethnographic research?

Drew: Sure. Ethnography in safety and in social science, generally, is very much the type of thing that you’d imagine when you imagine ethnographers studying strange people. We want to understand a group of people, their customs, their habits, how they live, their commonalities, the differences between those people and we want to do that by living amongst them. In ethnographic research, the researcher puts themselves inside the group that they want to study so that they can observe from within as much as possible. The idea is that there’s lots of stuff that goes on inside a group of people that no outsider can observe from the outside.

It doesn’t mean that the researcher has to become part of the group, but they do need to be enough inside the group that they can observe how to act when they’re by themselves, to understand what’s normal, not just what people say in interviews or what people answer on surveys.

In safety, particularly, we use ethnographic research to understand the day to day practices of work rather than the formalized descriptions of work or the way managers can see work and describe it to outsiders. In this particular case, Iszatt-White was studying a large organization that does road maintenance construction. Dave, you’ve done some ethnographic research yourself. Do you want to tell us a little bit about what it’s like to do ethnography as a researcher?

David: Yeah. It was quite daunting, but it ended up being quite rewarding on the way through as well. The main study, my PhD, on the practice of safety professionals was a longitudinal ethnography where over six-month period I observed and interviewed safety professionals in their own work setting. The difficulty of ethnography from a research point of view is that you most often start with a completely blank sheet of paper. On it, your only luck is to have a research question, which in my case was what is the role of a safety professional? And in the case of this study, I imagine Iszatt-White was sitting there with one line on her paper that said, “Why do people break rules?”

Drew: That’s quite different from how people sometimes imagine research as having hypothesis where we’re trying to come in with an idea or a theory and do some sort of experimental study to see whether it’s true. Ethnography is not like that. Ethnography isn’t testing ideas. It’s not trying to prove theory. Ethnography is about discovery and exploration. We usually have a question. You don’t go into it totally endlessly, but you don’t come into it usually with a fixed theory either.

David: I think that’s one of the biggest challenges in the communication of the findings, is that it’s impossible to separate your own ideas and beliefs as a researcher from the data that you’re gathering within the study. Good ethnographic research will go to fairly great lengths to manage the relationship between the researcher’s own opinions, biases, and what’s inside the data that they observed.

The other challenge that we find with ethnographic research is because the sample size is quite small, without very well done ethnography with good descriptions of the findings, then one of the criticisms will bay that it might only be applicable in that particular situation, that particular context.

Drew: I think we should be clear that some of the greatest, most famous studies in safety have essentially been ethnographies. One of the most famous is Diane Vaughan’s ethnography of the Challenger accident. That one is interesting because you think how do you do an ethnography of an accident? She was immersing herself in the organization after the accident and also examining, as an insider, all of the historical records so she could make sense of what a lot of the stuff meant by spending lots of time around the people who had been there.

David: And that’s one of the other drawbacks, Drew, to ethnographic research because Diane Vaughan spent 10 years to write that book and most researchers aren’t blessed with the opportunity to spend enough time to really go as deep as they like to with their ethnographic research.

Drew: Yeah. You can spend a lot of time hanging around just waiting for things to happen. You want to understand what normal work is like. Well, it happens that normal work really can be quite tedious, boring, and monotonous. The exciting stuff doesn’t happen, and the key conversations don’t happen around you constantly.

In this particular research, Iszatt-White was particularly interested in how workers think about rules, particularly in relation to how they perceive risks. She went into the study with the idea that in the historical literature, people break rules because they don’t know the rule or they don’t think there is any danger that says that they have to comply with the rule. It’s like an understanding deficit.

If you take that assumption, then you say, “Well, okay. If we can inform people and get them to understand the risk, then they’re more likely to follow the rule.” We might say, for example, that people break rules because of lack of risk perception, because they’re not aware of the hazards, because they’re careless, because they’re complacent. And so, like most research, Iszatt-White had this historical literature and she wanted to challenge this to a certain extent. That’s what the study was, was to try to find some deeper or better reasons than this carelessness and complacency.

The first part of the study was to have a number of interviews mainly with senior and middle managers and with supervisors. So Dave, what are your thoughts about doing this? About asking managers and supervisors when what you’re interested in is about how workers think and behave.

David: Drew, when we spoke about this before we got on the podcast, I was initially quite critical of this until you reminded me of the practicalities of getting access to companies and performing research. In most situations, the managers like to have their say as part of the daily gathering exercise quite early. And given this researcher, she was new to the organization, new to the industry, new to the research question, it probably wasn’t a bad place to start to get some early ideas that she could then get out and test in the field. My primary concern, that is, it’s generally a really bad research practice. For our listeners, organizational practice more broadly to ask someone about why someone else does what they do.

I think many of our listeners would be familiar with the concept of work is imagined and work is done. For those who aren’t, Professor Erik Hollnagel signs every email he sends off with, “The difference between what we can imagine and what can happen is larger than we can imagine.” My fear was that Iszatt-White would have been sent off with some ideas that then she went out and found evidence to support those ideas because sometimes, what you look for is what you find.

It reminded me a little bit, Drew, of a conversion I has this week with a senior manager in a large company. He rang me and when I asked him what the problem was, he half-jokingly replied, “My people keep trying to kill themselves.” And so to him, I replied, “Well, I’m not sure that’s what’s happening so let’s go and find out.”

Drew: As you said, David, if you go in looking for that, even if you’re willing for other explanations, none of us are ever quite as open-minded as we think we are. I’m always very sceptical not just about the people, but of myself and I catch myself saying, “I’m going into this with an open mind.” It’s usually I think I know what’s happening and I’m open enough that if you give me absolutely slam-dunk evidence that I’m wrong, I’ll accept that evidence.

So yeah, we’re a little bit suspicious about how this study started off, but the good thing is that it certainly didn’t stop there. That would have been a bad study. Going to ask managers why workers break rules and report the answers in a published paper. I’ve seen that done and that’s not the paper we’re reviewing today.

Following these interviews with the managers, they went out and they directly started getting interactive with the frontline workforce. That included some interviews, included sitting in on meetings, sitting in on safety trainings to see what the training is like from the perspective of people attending it, going to site and watching workers do activities at site, listening in on small groups, and how individuals talk to the researchers or to each other. They did one of my favorite safety activities, which is sitting in a car with people for a long period of time. The conversations you have after you’ve been in a car with someone for half a day are so different to the conversation when you sit down either of an interview table. That was the data gathering part of it.

Let’s move on then and look at what the findings were. There are three main findings. Dave, I’ll get you to take these through these. The first one was the operative sense of self-efficacy. The second was the need for heedfulness. The third was the idea of risk displacement. David, do you want to take us through each one of those?

David: Yeah. Thanks Drew. The first is the operative sense of self-efficacy. What this meant and what Iszatt-White found and concluded from this study was [...]. If workers have a strong sense of self-efficacy, or self-reliance, or just experience more broadly in their role and keeping themselves safe, then they often believe that their skills and experience are sufficient to manage the situations that they face. That, to them, makes following the rules or the letter of the law in work method statement, somewhat superfluous. His expertise is often accompanied with a genuine motivation to get the job done.

Examples of rule violations that led to this conclusion were people working at heights without full protection because they’ve done it a lot before, they’re only going to be up there for a little period of time, and it would’ve meant stopping the work for a long period to get them full protection to site. Also, things like electricians needing to perform tasks in pairs when the experienced electricians have been performing tasks on their own for their whole career.

Drew, do you want to talk about self-efficacy because it comes up a lot in safety studies?

Drew: This one really jumped out at me particularly since we did the episode on behaviour based safety last week and you found the term self-efficacy pop up a lot in behaviour change as well. There, it’s used almost exactly in the opposite way. People break rules or they follow bad habits because they feel that they lack the self-efficacy to change. They don’t feel that they’ve got enough power and influence over their own lives so that they can make decisions With that [...], “I don’t feel that I’m able to give up food.” “I don’t feel like I’m able to give up cigarettes.” “I don’t really think I’ve got enough control over my time to get enough exercise.”

What is interesting is that in the behavioural literature they say, “Look, people need self-efficacy in order to be able to change and do the right thing.” And then, we have this study that suddenly says, “Okay, if you’ve got too much self-efficacy, then you’re going to start making decisions about yourself that can include breaking the rules.”

David: Yeah. I found that interesting as well. Secondly, it was probably a little bit more obvious in a sense that it’s probably closer to the traditional research in the safety space, was that there is this need for heedfulness as well as compliance. So, the frontline workers know that they need to pay attention to the situations they face and constantly make decisions about their work because they operate in very dynamic environments. In this work context, it is heedful approach to work that’s the most important thing, not a blind following of the rules.

While some may think that workers will have all of these rules and compliance requirements that they need to follow in the front of their mind, I think the study suggests that the reality might be that they’re more likely to have the situation that they’re facing with the work in front of their mind and the need to follow the rules in the back of their mind.

Next time we think about someone didn’t follow the rules because they are being complacent or lack of awareness of what they were doing, we might want to rethink that and actually ask ourselves, well maybe they were unable to follow the rules because they weren’t being complacent and they were actually paying attention to the situation that they face.

Do you have a thought about this, Drew? We’ve spoken a lot about trying to balance this need for compliance and decision making.

Drew: The moment you said that, David, I was thinking about an example from a company we are working with where they had a rule about doing a Take 5 risk assessment before they started any task. One of the subcontractors put their hands up and said, “Well, do we need to do the risk assessment before we put out traffic cones?”

It became evident that they had to make this choice when they stopped in the middle of the road between whether they paid attention to what was around them and got the safety protections out or whether they carefully filled out a risk assessment stuck in the middle of this dangerous situation. I think that’s the risk when we talk too much about complacency, is what we honestly expect of workers is not total compliance, what we expect of them is a certain degree of common sense around the rules. This isn’t just safety, this is inherent to all organizations.

There is a really famous paper from Katz in the 1960s talking about how [...] all organizations we rely on our workers to both be compliant and to have initiative. We need them to spontaneously do the right thing even when it’s not written down as a rule and sometimes, we need them to do what they’re told. Almost, by definition, we can’t specify in advance when we want them to be compliant and when we them to show initiative. We like them to take initiative to make that decision.

David: Yeah. Many of our systems and processes around compliance find it very hard to, I suppose in hindsight, think about non compliance in a way that could be the right thing to do in a particular situation. That might be something that we might address in a future podcast, Drew, as well. I think there is a whole discussion about that balance between compliance, initiative, the role of workers in the organization, and how to enable them to be able to do that.

Drew: Yeah. Definitely want to dig up for one of our episodes, the discussion of malicious compliance, what happens when workers actually start obeying every single rule, and how they then get blamed for following the rules.

David: The third finding that Iszatt-White concluded was these dangers of risk displacement. This is probably a reference to the complexity of a real world frontline work situations. It refers to this individual thought process that has to balance these tradeoffs and different risks so people were able to transfer certain safety risk away from the immediate situation. One of the examples was that they have to wear hearing protection when they’re doing a certain task, but they’re in a really busy road area and if they wore the hearing protection, they won't be able to listen out for calls from other members of the crew, hear vehicles approaching their work area and things like that. They have to displace this obvious risk of hearing loss with this immediate need for maintaining their awareness of their situation.

There are also some other blanket rules, for example, the requirement to wear hard hats. These are outdoor road construction workers and many of the times they are performing work there was very little above them other than the sky. One of the tasks they needed to do quite often was to cross busy roads with cars travelling at quite high speeds to get to their work area or lay out traffic signage. Workers reported having to run across the road holding on to their hard hat with one hand, trying to carry a sign with the other hand, and trying to avoid getting hit by cars. I think this situation that workers face multiple risks at any point in time means they’ve got multiple rules which contradict each other. They’re going to have to make tradeoffs to expose themselves to certain risks.

Drew: Yeah. I think this is genuinely a difficult thing for companies to balance. One example that springs to mind of one of the most difficult ones is whether workers should wear long sleeves to protect against skin cancer. We make that decision for ourselves in our private life. We’re trading off the discomfort of long clothes, the risk of getting sunburnt, the long-term risk of cancer, and the short-term inconvenience of not having clothes that are exactly suitable for what we’re trying to do or the image we’re trying to portray. In our private lives, we can make those balances for ourselves, but it is difficult for organizations that feel responsible for the outcomes and may in fact, at times, be legally responsible for the outcomes. Obviously, the organization wants to have a say in that trade-off and not just leave it up to the workers.

There is a risk that the more we try to fix those situations, the more we end up having workers who are focusing on the rule rather than on the hazard and they start having to manage the risk of getting caught instead of managing the risk of injured. Certainly, once we get to that point, it’s not good for safety at all.

David: I agree. If we talk about tradeoffs, goal conflicts, and how we partner with any parallel workforce, we’ll have many podcasts where we’ll talk about studies in those areas because they’re quite central to how we manage safety in organizations. Let’s get back to this question of why do people break rules. The answer to why people break rules according to Iszatt-White in this study is that number one, workers understand the risk and believe that they can manage it in some situations without following the rule; number two, workers use their own judgement to respond to the dynamic situation that they’re facing and sometimes, this results in non compliance; or number three, they do not think that the rule is related to the safety risk that they face or they’re facing a more important safety risk, which makes following that rule a lesser priority for them.

Interestingly, Iszatt-White compared her findings in this study to previous study that was done by Lawton in 1998. They had also found noncompliance across four pedigrees in that sense, which largely mirror the three that Iszatt-White had found, but they added a fourth which was that this is a routine violation, which is a little bit more like a norm in the practice where people never follow this rule in any situation. I think the interesting thing about these studies, and it appears from the way the paper was written, that Iszatt-White went back to the literature after she’d formed her conclusions to try to look for an existing theory that could match to different studies that came up with very similar themes.

I think, from our listener’s perspective, you can take some of these ideas away and you can start to get a sense of whether they’re true within your own organization. They could be at play in your own organizations.

Drew, there’s a question of should we be doing this kind of research focusing on breaking rules? It’s something that we don’t necessarily want to have in our organizations and just sit by and accept that it happens and to research it. Should we be accepting that and doing research on it?

Drew: I certainly think there are a lot of safety academics who don’t even like that construction of thinking about safety in terms of rules or thinking about unsafety in terms of rule-breaking. I think it is important as safety practitioners and as researchers that we have some clear answers we can give back to management when management see what they at least think of and describe as rule-breaking. If that’s the problem that people are coming to us with, then having an answer that says, “Sorry, that’s the wrong question,” is not a particularly appropriate or helpful answer. These sorts of studies, they will give slightly different nuanced explanations, but they do have some repeated themes that do provide really quite useful answers.

Even if we stick with the language of why do people break rules, we can say, “Look, there are three big reasons here and only one of them has to do with the people.” Sure, one of the reasons can be because of people’s knowledge of and attitude towards the rules, but probably a much bigger set of explanations come from understanding the situation that the problem is not the people breaking the rules, the problem is the rules that people are breaking and that we need to look at that as something fixed.

And then there is this third category in the middle, which is people trying to navigate difficult, complex situations. In two out of the three, trying to fix the problem doesn’t involve trying to fix the people. It involves looking at what are the rules, how do they interact, what sorts of situation tradeoffs are people trying to cope with.

David: I think, Drew, as we move in, there’s a great segue way into the implications for practice and if we move into that, even in that one which might be easy to conclude that it’s about the people is many of those rules that people are maybe taking or [...] way of working may not be any less risky or any different. It may not be all the rules that the organization has that need to be dealt with by helping the person comply more.

The first practical suggestion that I had and the practical take I had for our listeners on this is how much co-design goes into the creation of rules or processes in the organization? How much say do the people have who are expected to follow the rules having what those rules look like and what context they’re meant to comply? And do organizations make any effort to have any kind of social contract between the managers, the safety professionals, and the workers? Their contract is in the organization in understanding the creation and the application of rules within their organization. That’ll be one thing that I really think about. How does rule-making occur?

Drew: The first thing that happens in grade one classrooms in primary school is they get the kids to sit down and make a set of rules for the classroom. It’s the basic knowledge that rules the people come up with themselves, that they decide for themselves are important are going to be far more effective as a social agreement about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Maybe, if you give people the freedom to do that, the rules they come up with would not be exactly what you do yourself. That is challenging. If you give people freedom, sometimes, you’re not going to like where they take that freedom, but I would much rather have 8 rules that people agree with and think are the right rules than 10 rules I’ve written myself where they follow none of them.

David: I agree. The second practical takeaway for people is, I think we need to look for opportunities given the increasing complexity of our workplaces and our work activities. Finding ways to use principles and frameworks as opposed to specific compliance requirements could allow the ability for people to make decisions in certain situations that doesn’t result in noncompliance, it’s just an application of a principle in the way that it’s intended to be applied.

I’m thinking about that example that you gave us about Take 5 in a dangerous situation. Having a rule that says do a Take 5 before every task is very different towards telling people to do a risk assessment and having a framework where if they’re in a dynamic and risky situation, that’s a very simple mental risk assessment of doing the initial set up for the work and if they’ve got the time and space, it might involve a more complete theme-based or checklist-based assessment. But principles and frameworks, I think, have been under utilized in the frontline workplace in relation to safety.

If we think about the co-design of rules and then the use of principle of framework, the third takeaway for me would be this production and safety conflict and making it hard to comply, like the sample I gave for someone to follow the rules and have to [...] the rest equipment might have resulted in an extra half a day or a full day of time lost in getting the job done. We know that making sacrifice judgements for safety are far easier to make and compliance can be fat easier if there’s not a big production and cause conflict within the organization. I really think we will discuss tradeoffs and goal conflict in future podcasts. We’ll bring some specific research on it. But that’s really important because this study show that if compliance is difficult, then compliance may not happen as the organization might want it to.

Drew: I think that’s a good set of takeaways, David. I just want to emphasize on that last one that often we hear about this idea of a conflict between production and safety. We think the thing to do is to put our thumbs on the side of the scale of safety and really, if you imagine it literally, like I said, of scales, there’s massive pressure on one hand, which is production, and if we put the pressure down on safety, then workers just get totally squeezed in the middle. It’s not that the balance comes to safety, it’s that the workers are irreconcilably pulled between these two massive competing forces.

David: I think it means when the snap does happen, the snap is bigger. The production snap or the safety snap becomes bigger. I think there’s a good takeaway here for those of our listeners who are safety practitioners in the research method, the ethnographic research method here and this idea of a blank piece of paper. The next time in your organization, when there’s an incident of noncompliance or a rule is broken, lots of people in your organization are going to be quick to jump to explanations and judgements about why that noncompliance occurred and you can be the one with a blank piece of paper and say, “You know, I’m not sure it is because they don’t care about safety and I’m not sure it is because they’re complacent about their work, I think we should actually go and find out the answer in a non-judgmental way. I think, Drew, we have this to [...] because I think safety managers should be ethnographers pretty much all of the time.

Drew: Yeah. I absolutely agree with that. I think that is one of the real values that safety personnel can add to an organization, is they may be operating on behalf of the management a lot of the time, but they’re also operating on behalf of the worker. Being stuck in that middle space can be at times incredibly complex, challenging, and frustrating, but it also gives the opportunity to have that role as the outsider who is also an insider, the person who can listen to the stories that everyone tells and be the fly on the wall and gather that information, and then get that information to work in the service of both safety and the interest of the board of organization.

David: That’s it for this week. Our question for this week was why do people break rules and the short answer is because of their own sense of self-efficacy, the need to balance heedfulness as well as compliance, and the dangers of risk displacement. We hope you found this episode thought-provoking and ultimately useful in shaping the safety of work in your own organization. Send any comments, questions, or ideas for future episodes directly to us at