The broken window theory was introduced in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. Since the theory was published, it has influenced law enforcement and how we view crime.

The broken window theory:

Picture a vacant building with a few broken windows; if not repaired, more will most likely be broken by vandals. With time, the situation will worsen as more vandalism takes place with increased frequency.

So, what does the broken window theory have to do with safety? It establishes acceptable behavior.

The broken window theory is about normalized behavior and what is considered acceptable.

Our “Broken Window” Problem

In 2009, one of our factories was experiencing an alarming rate of accidents. It was also observed that safety rules were not enforced as they should have been. For example: due to noise on the factory floor that exceeded 90+ decibels, hearing protection in the form of ear plugs was required, but rarely used.

Even though everyone knew this, few followed the rule. I know because I became the head of safety for that facility. I observed that few managers, supervisors or anyone in leadership roles ever wore ear plugs while on the factory floor. This was our broken window.

For years, we had tried to improve our safety without success. We needed to enforce all safety rules or we could not enforce any of them.

It was not uncommon for employees in this factory to ignore most safety rules. It was normal for management to ignore safety rules as well. Safety was not as important as production. Working on equipment while it was running or with guards off was normal. PPE was often not used, LOTO was neglected, the list went on and on.

No one gets hurt on purpose, however in our factory, the control measures needed to keep people safe were not being used. The result was a high level of accidents taking place on a consistent basis. I was told we had the highest accident rate of all our factories globally.

In a brainstorming session with upper management to discuss our safety problem and how to turn it around, I explained the broken window theory. We needed to start enforcing all safety rules and elevate safety to number one in importance.

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New York Crime

I had read a book by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. When he became mayor of New York city, the crime rate was so bad citizens were removing the stereos to their own cars and placing stickers in the window saying “No Stereo.” This was to keep vandals from breaking a car window to steal the stereo.

Mr. Giuliani had police officers start enforcing minor law violations.

  • Writing tickets to anyone that jumped a subway turnstile.
  • Writing tickets for “Jaywalking” to panhandlers that were using newspaper to try to wash people’s car windows at stoplights.

This set off a chain of improvements in law enforcement. The violent crime rate dropped by 56 percent during the eight years he served as mayor. Murder, down nearly two-thirds. Robbery, down 67 percent. Aggravated assault, down 28 percent.

Universal Law

There is a universal law that we all follow in our jobs. We know what is acceptable and we base our behavior accordingly. We observe what is important to management and adhere to their set values. If safety is not valued by them, it will not be valued by the workforce.

Safety requires effort. If it is not valued, the effort will not be given. Each time a safety rule is broken and not enforced, it sends a message that safety is not important. By not enforcing minor safety violations, we create a culture that does not value safety. The control measures designed to keep employees safe can be disregarded and danger exists where there should be none.

Managers need to make sure that all safety rules are enforced at all levels.

Lesson for Safety

The lesson here is one of acceptable behavior. Safety must be seen as important enough to enforce all safety rules. It takes effort to enforce safety rules, just as it takes effort to stay safe. This effort must begin with management and trickle down through the organization.

In 2009, we began enforcing all safety rules in our factory. We made sure anyone on the factory floor wore hearing protection. High-level managers walking across the floor made sure they wore ear plugs. They set a good example.

We started a practice of beginning all meetings with safety as the first agenda topic. (This is a practice they still follow today).

Our factory went from being the worst site for safety globally to being one of the best. We received a global safety award from the company as a result of our effort.

What is considered acceptable safety behavior where you work? Do you enforce all safety rules?

I have found that is much more rewarding to place effort on enforcing safety rules than on performing accident investigations. It will be one or the other. Let’s take care of our broken windows and make clear what is acceptable behavior with regards to safety.

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