Two stories in the news recently caught my eye. In the first, a janitor allegedly shut off the power to a freezer after hearing “annoying alarms.” He ended up ruining decades of research. In the other story, an American couple found dead in their hotel room allegedly died of carbon monoxide poisoning after hotel staff had disabled alarms for the deadly gas. Guests reportedly repeatedly complained about the loud alarms.
Despite very different circumstances, the stories had much in common. In both cases, controls (alarms) had been put in place to prevent a potentially serious problem. In both cases, the controls were not enough, costing two lives and the loss of years of work.
There are several lessons compliance teams can take away from these incidents:
Having controls in place only works if people understand what they are and why they are important. In both cases, the seriousness of taking the wrong action appears poorly understood. The controls were perceived as nuisances rather than essential protections of life and work.
False alarms—real or perceived—can lead to people ignoring them or worse. If the warnings don’t mean anything to the workforce, and there is no adverse consequence for ignoring them, people stop taking them seriously.
Be prepared for “human ingenuity” to overcome the controls you place. The janitor bypassed the signs about not disconnecting the freezer and allegedly turned off the power at the circuit breaker, where there was no warning or devices to prevent that from happening. Hotel staff seem to have easily disabled the alarms. Ask yourself: How easy would it be to subvert the controls you have in place?
Be sure you are training everyone you should. Sometimes even the janitor from a third-party vendor needs compliance training.
Finally, there is one other lesson we can all take away: Read the news with a compliance eye. There are a lot of stories like these that can be instructive and relatable. We can turn a story that our workforces may have read into a lesson that can help support our compliance efforts, demonstrating that we aren’t just here to mitigate risk but to also prevent very real issues.