In Brief

  • Hypercompliance is about raising penalties around absolute rules.

  • Hypercompliance may be taking OSH in the wrong direction.

  • Raising penalties can result in employee disengagement.

  • More rules do not necessarily equate to a safer workplace.

Efforts to improve occupational safety and health began with rules and compliance. Complying with these laws and safety standards greatly improved the workplace. As the understanding of incident causation became more sophisticated, other methods were used to engage employees and involve those on the front line in assessing and mitigating risks and hazards in a more proactive way.

As approaches continue to evolve, a new movement is gaining favor that the authors call hypercompliance: a process that consists of enhanced rules exceeding legislated and industry standards. This movement includes an unflinching zero tolerance for errors whereby rule breakers are harshly sanctioned or fired. The major question posed by this article is: Does hypercompliance tend to improve or hinder safety performance?

This article examines the evolutionary path that led to hypercompliance and why it appears to be a good solution yet has unintended consequences. Those consequences, although unintentional, defeat the established goal of hypercompliance. The authors examine the gap between academic knowledge and common practice and assumption; to do so, they use established facts based on more than 50 years of study and the successful application of theories in management and behavior.

Compliance: The Beginning

To improve safety performance, compliance addresses basics. These involve laws, regulations, some nonlegislated or industry standards, and company rules. Compliance is simply managing and following laws or standards, primarily to avoid penalties for noncompliance.

However, compliance simply means meeting the minimum standards set forth by society in the form of legislation, which many companies realize. Early efforts to improve safety began with simple compliance, which was aligned with the scientific management theory of the 1920s. Also termed Taylorism, after its founder Frederick Winslow Taylor, this theory and practice focused on the industrialization of workplaces and efficiency. Taylor is mostly remembered for advocating piece work, or paying employees for each unit of work completed, such as material moved or parts assembled (Taneja, Pryor & Toombs, 2011). Taylor also believed there is one best way to perform a task. However, any such approach is doomed to fail because no two people perform the same task in the same way (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999).

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