Safety clutter. It’s an oxymoron of our times. Clutter is rarely safe and less so when it accumulates mindlessly in the workplace. We define it as “the accumulation and persistence of safety rules, procedures and practices that do not contribute to the safety of work”.

Put simply: safety clutter is all that safety crap that we expect our people to do with very little value. All those forms, folders and filing cabinets filled with tick the box requirements that make our colleagues roll their eyes and call the safety team the ‘fun police’ – that’s safety clutter.

Other than being plain annoying, it becomes a real organisational problem due to the drain on time and resources, the negative impact on organisational culture and communication, and the reduced effectiveness of value adding safety activity. Safety clutter gets in the way of getting work done safely!

How did we get here?

Why do organisations develop and implement procedures, rules and requirements for safety that have no useful benefit to safer outcomes? And why do these rules stay in our organisations years beyond their usefulness? 

One of the answers is regulatory compliance. Organisations tend to believe that if they have all these rules and procedures and activities and documents for safety, then all bases have been covered when it comes to legal compliance.

But a number of prominent safety lawyers in Australia have clearly told us that paperwork is not due diligence and it’s certainly not a legal defence if there was ever an accident. Managing safety properly is the legal defence – not piles of safety paperwork.

The other answer behind the mounting pile of procedural manuals and processing forms is that organisations can too easily add new pieces into the system. Every time there’s an incident, meeting, an audit or a new safety improvement plan, it’s probable that safety clutter is created.

Last year we worked with an organisation that had performed over 100 incident investigations in the previous 12 months. Each incident led to approximately 10 action items, which meant that from one process alone – incident investigations over a year – 1000 safety actions were generated for staff. 

Over 90% of these actions involved developing or updating safety procedures, re-communicating safety messages or re-training staff.  This organisation came to us because they were experiencing repeat incidents in the workplace – yep, all of the procedures and processes being developed were not making work safer for anyone.

Are you still with me? It’s sweat-inducing stuff. It’s no one’s fault. Organisations need to be compliant. We’re all doubly afflicted by the infinite opportunities to add new safety procedures into our organisations, coupled with a chronic lack of time and processes to critically evaluate and remove the things from the system that are not working.

Why does it matter so much?

What if your organisation is happy to spend money on people filling out an abundance of forms? Well, ironically, safety clutter and all the things you add to an organisation in the name of safety can be detrimental to safety management.

Recent academic studies into identifying and removing organisation-wide safety clutter  have revealed that safety clutter has real and measurable negative effects on safety. 

Safety clutter can:

  1. Reduce individual ownership of safety and operational decisions
  2. Remove flexibility to adapt work to changing risk context
  3. Erode trust between management, safety advisors and the workforce
  4. Increase goal conflict between safety and productivity
  5. Compromise the effectiveness of valuable safety activity.

What can I do about safety clutter?

Firstly. Safety clutter is not inevitable. There are steps we can take to avoid the pressure to add unhelpful safety processes into the system and ways we can disengage the ratchet effect.

1. Start having conversations about clutter

Introduce a discussion around safety clutter into management teams and the workforce. Be prepared to have difficult conversations. Listen when people tell you that a process or form is bullshit. You need to be open minded and courageous because that’s the job of a safety professional.

Begin by assessing safety activities through a lens of what does this contribute to safety? Does it have a high impact or low impact? 

Encourage conversations about safety at all levels – what a safety department thinks is important is likely to be different from the experience of workers who complete the task. Be curious. Ask people to share their honest experience of safety management activities and whether they have an impact.

2. Run an experiment to remove a piece of clutter

Ask people directly what they would like to start doing, stop doing, do more of and do less of, when it comes to safety activities. Managers should be encouraged to ask their workers, ‘What is the least valuable thing I am asking you to do to work here every day?’

Where there is a clear consensus among all stakeholders that a process or activity is safety clutter, there’s an opportunity to remove or re-engineer it. Show your organisation that communication, culture, work effectiveness and ultimately safety improve by identifying and removing safety clutter. That’s what the research and industry experience shows.

3. Redefine the role of safety professionals in creating safety

When people understand and value a safety practice, they will approach it with a diligent mindset – rather than see it as a tick-and-flick exercise. Safety professionals with a greater intention around improving the safety of work, lead to more valuable and less onerous safety management activities.

The theory and research surrounding safety clutter provides the opportunity and methodology to review your organisation’s safety activities and how it understands the role of safety professionals in creating safety – as opposed to creating safety processes.

Start by getting your own safety clutter scorecard report, which determines some of the standard processes that may be creating clutter in your organisation. It’s a useful tool for reflecting on the effectiveness of your role and your organisation’s safety management practices in creating safe outcomes in your workplace.

Safety professionals need to take their heads out of the sand when it comes to safety clutter and provide leadership to their organisations to:

“wage war against the excessive health and safety [clutter] that has become an albatross around the neck of businesses.”

(David Cameron, former UK Prime Minister, 2012)