Cardinal Rules

A Q&A with Christopher Hart, former Chairman of the NTSB

Kurt Krueger, CIH
August 14, 2018

Cardinal Rules have been around for a long time and can go by a variety of names, such as Golden Safety Rules, fundamental rules, critical rules, etc. Simply put, they are usually a set of rules about the behavior of frontline employees that the employer has identified as important to good safety performance and accident prevention in their operations. Some can be common across companies like “always de-energize equipment before working on it”, while others may be very specific to a particular company and its operations. Historically, they have often been implemented with some form of “zero tolerance” policy that says something like “if you violate these rules you will be disciplined, up to and including termination”.

Some people say cardinal rules are critical to strong safety performance, while others say “get rid of them”. OSHA says that “Employees who refuse to comply with occupational safety and health standards or valid safety rules implemented by the employer in furtherance of the Act are not exercising any rights afforded by the Act”, and discipline will usually not be regarded as a prohibited discriminatory action. The leading experts (for example: James Reason, Eric Hollnagel, and Todd Conklin) in the New View of safety and Human & Organizational Performance tell us we can either blame and shame people for violations and deviations, or we can learn and sustainably improve performance – you can only do one or the other even though we often try to do both when assessing an accident or deviation from expected behaviors.

Here are two links that you may find interesting. The first is to an online video by a company that supports the use of Cardinal Rules, and the second is a podcast by Todd Conklin regarding the pitfalls associated with cardinal rules.

Authored with Bill Hoyle, Former Subject Matter Expert and Safety Consultant, ORCHSE, an NSC Workplace Safety Group.

Kurt Krueger, CIH

Kurt Krueger formerly served as principal consultant, workplace practice, with ORCHSE, an NSC workplace safety group.

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