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Punishment Is NOT The Answer

One of the challenges that occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals’ face is determining the best method for enforcing safety protocols.

Many companies choose to use punishment as a means of implementing their safety procedures. Invoking this method, OHS workers are forced to become ‘safety police’ who monitor the floor or field for workers breaking safety protocols and issuing them a designated punishment for the worker’s infraction.

Using punishment as a means of enforcement is understandable given its prominence in our society.  Law enforcement use it to enforce the government’s laws and since using punishment is so common in everyday life, it would seem logical that the use of punishment would be effective in enforcing safety protocols; however, it is not the best method and can actually have negative effects on the safety culture of your organization.

How Punishment can Negatively Affect Workplace Safety Culture

When workers are punished for failing to follow safety protocols, the OHS worker is forced to police the workplace. Most OHS professionals don’t enjoy being a ‘safety cop’ and it can create a sense of disconnect between the OHS workers (who are viewed as a police-like authority figure) and the on-site workers. This can have adverse effects on the safety culture of your organization.

For example, it can create an environment where safety protocols are only followed when the OHS professional is present so the workers can avoid punishment. In this case, workers are not consistently following safety protocols and could be doing unsafe procedures which may result in workplace incidents.

Additionally, using punishment may result in on-site workers failing to report near misses for fear of penalty. When near misses are not dealt with appropriately, they significantly increase the likelihood of that near miss reoccurring and resulting in an actual incident.

In fact, one worker we spoke with who used to be a roofer in Salmon Arm, B.C. told a story about almost falling through a 12 foot roof with a concrete floor beneath. A misguided co-worker had placed a fiberboard over a hole in the roof and didn’t communicate to his co-workers or leave any indication that there was a hole. This worker stepped onto the fiberboard and nearly fell through the roof but managed to catch himself last minute. When asked if this near miss was reported, he said: “no, we never reported near misses because we didn’t want to get in trouble”. While this particular worker was lucky enough to have caught himself, the unreported near miss could have resulted in severe injury or even death.

Overall, using punishment as a means of enforcing safety protocols creates a negative safety culture, where near misses go unreported and unresolved, and workers only act safely when OHS officers are policing.

So if punishment isn’t the answer, then how can companies enforce their safety protocols?

Why Formal Corrective Action Processes Create a Better Safety Culture

As we discuss in our A Safety Professional’s Guide to Behavior-Based Safety Whitepaper, using a formal corrective action process which involves rewarding those workers who are safety leaders in the workplace and providing constructive criticism to those who fail to be safe, you can create a positive safety culture and significantly reduce workplace incidents.

A formal corrective action process is one which allows you not only to identify workplace hazards but to analyze and understand why this hazard occurred. By understanding why a hazard occurred, you can adapt or change your safety protocols or workers’ behaviors to prevent the hazard from reoccurring. With technological developments and the rise of smartphone technology, OHS professionals now have the opportunity to use mobile apps to do their corrective action process.

Mobile apps which allow you to take and annotate photos when doing hazard identification allow for clear documentation of hazards and an easy way to analyze why the hazard occurred, allowing the organization to fix the unsafe behavior which led to it. Using a formal and analytical corrective action process allows you to continuously improve the safety of your workplace without the negative consequences that result from punishment.

By celebrating and rewarding workers who are safety leaders, you promote worker safety and encourage them to go above and beyond the minimum requirements. While those who don’t follow safety protocols should have their behavior corrected, using constructive criticism rather than punishment allows for you to address the problem without creating a negative, police-like atmosphere.

In short, using punishment as a means of enforcing safety protocols can create a negative safety culture and fail to avoid workplace incidents from occurring. Choosing to use a formal corrective action process and rewarding those who make a visible commitment to safety, allows you to create a positive safety culture which results in a workforce that wants to use safe behaviors rather than merely to avoid punishment.

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