Philip Whiteley's Blog

February 13, 2010

Rules, regulations and old hat

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:24 am

More people were killed building the Channel Tunnel than the Empire State Building. Let’s think about that. By the 1990s, all construction sites were hard hat, hi-vis vest-wearing places with books the size of bibles on health and safety. The New York skyscraper, built in just 410 days in 1930-31, famously had an army of workers with cloth caps. Yet official and unofficial records put the death toll at less than the 10 who perished building the underground link between Britain and France.

Does that mean we should abandon hard hats? No, but it does mean that rules may play a much smaller role than we suppose in health and safety – and in many aspects of work and life. What saved lives in Manhattan in the 1930s, as indicated by the phenomenal productivity, will have been close camaraderie and high levels of trust among the workers looking out for each other.

The common response from a politician to a problem is a new law banning something. But however unpleasant that thing can be, a new rule can have unintended consequences. Even more commonly, though, it’s simply an irrelevance. The arguments over more-versus-less regulation are often not the most important ones to have, because the things that really matter are to do with leadership, workplace competence, engagement and trust. Bean-counters and politicians hate this whole subject area, because they cannot measure or regulate it. They are envious because it is important, and so try to dismiss it as ‘soft’.

The problem with regulation without attending to behaviour, trust or values is that the rules become a substitute for thinking. To take a trivial example, at a local supermarket planning process near our home a couple of years ago, we pointed out to the local authority planners that there weren’t enough parking spaces for residents or for supermarket workers. Their response was that they didn’t have a duty to provide parking, and we didn’t have the right to ask for it. The concept of ‘a good idea’ was alien to them. And now, of course, there aren’t enough parking spaces.

Even with investment bankers, a spectacular example of low-regulated area going badly wrong, the level of regulation is likely to be of lesser importance than the values – basically because they don’t have any.

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