Beyond punishment

The controversial role of discipline in safety

  • Although the word "discipline" often is equated with punishment, it actually includes reminders, counseling and other efforts to ensure workers follow procedure.
  • Disciplinary policies should account for gray areas, such as differences in the severity of the violation.
  • Employers should keep seperate records for safety-related discipline so they can easily produce them in the event of an OSHA inspection.

By Ashley Johnson, associate editor

Safety professionals generally do not want to be known as “safety cops.” They prefer to engage employees in the process of creating a safe work environment rather than police the workforce looking for violators. 

Still, safety rules need to be followed, especially when non-compliance endangers other workers. How should safety leaders and supervisors deal with workers who break those rules? One controversial answer is discipline.

The word “discipline” tends to conjure up negative feelings associated with punishment. However, experts say defining discipline solely in negative terms obscures the opportunity for leaders to correct and motivate workers to change behavior.

“Discipline is not punishment,” said E. Scott Geller, senior partner of Safety Performance Solutions and professor of psychology at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. “Discipline is influencing people to do the right thing, and punishment is not the best way.”

Teachable moment 

In a 1976 case, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission stated that an employer must make “a diligent effort to discourage, by discipline if necessary, violations of safety rules by employees.”

In the workplace, discipline typically manifests as punishment. However, Geller pointed out that discipline comes from the Latin word “disciplina,” which refers to instruction and teaching.

He promotes a concept called “actively caring,” which is about reinforcing, recognizing and supporting positive behavior instead of punishing negative behavior.

Geller said many employers do just the opposite. For an organization that has a policy requiring workers who commit certain safety violations to be sent home without pay, Geller has a suggestion: Send the worker home with pay. Tell the employee his action was unacceptable and invite him to think about whether he wants to continue working for the organization – “Can you accept our culture with safety as a value?” If the employee says yes, then he should fill out a commitment form on which he describes the at-risk behavior as well as what support he needs to adjust his behavior. Even workers who know better can make mistakes, and this approach helps employers find out why, according to Geller.

For example, if a construction worker is caught onsite without a hard hat: “I want to have a one-to-one actively caring conversation because I want to know what holds you back from wearing that hard hat,” Geller said. “Does it not fit? Is it uncomfortable? Do you see others not wearing their hard hat and thus you think it’s the right thing? Did you forget?”

An actively caring system promotes choice, competence and community. Conversely, “When you punish someone, you destroy their sense of choice, you might even destroy their sense of competence,” Geller said. He said his research indicates that actively caring causes workers to exceed safety requirements, which fits with a key component of safety leadership – inspiring workers to do the right thing even when no one is looking.

But under a top-down punitive system, “people do only what they have to do and they only do it when they’re being supervised or watched,” Geller said. He also warned that fear of punishment may cause workers to hide injuries.

Progressive discipline 

Michael O’Toole, associate professor and program coordinator for the safety science program in the College of Aviation at the Daytona Beach, FL, campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, called discipline an “unfortunate necessary part” of safety programs.

Similar to Geller, O’Toole supports positive disciplinary actions, such as sitting down with employees in a non-threatening environment and asking, “What can I do as your supervisor to make sure you don’t do it again?”

However, sometimes stronger measures are necessary, he said. In those instances, many employers apply progressive discipline, in which the degree of punishment increases with repeat infractions.

Even when the steps are clearly spelled out, the practice of safety discipline is often imprecise. Disciplining workers for attendance is rather straightforward – an employee was either at work or not – whereas safety violations and their consequences vary.

“Someone failing to wear their safety shoes, it’s important but likely isn’t going to get them killed, as opposed to not following a lockout/tagout procedure or not wearing their fall protection can certainly kill [them], and unfortunately those things are sometimes looked at as equal,” O’Toole said.

Barbara Bowen takes a different view on discipline, arguing that punitive measures often change behavior. Bowen is the quality and safety manager for Chugach Federal Solutions Inc., which operates a remote military island installation.

“I think there can be a positive effect on compliance,” she said, “but then you have the [question], ‘Are they compliant because they have to or are they compliant because they are buying into the program?’ And you always prefer if they are compliant because they are buying into the program.”

At a previous job, Bowen issued tickets for safety violations. She had discretion to determine the ticket amount for serious violations, which was paid by the contractor that employed the worker.

Although in Bowen’s opinion $100 would have been too much for failing to wear a hard hat, she once wrote a $4,000 ticket for multiple violations of the National Electric Code because they presented serious hazards to other workers.

She did not let supervisors off the hook either. If a supervisor responded with “I’ve told them a thousand times” after being informed of a worker’s unsafe behavior, Bowen’s perspective was, “You’ve told them 997 times too many.” In such a case, she said, she would hold the supervisor accountable for failing to enforce policy.

Implementation challenges

According to O’Toole, safety leaders should strive for a clear disciplinary policy that corrects behavior and ensures consistency in how workers are treated.

One important element is making sure the disciplinary action fits the infraction, he said. “Now can you put that down in black and white? That’s the part that makes it really uncomfortable – because how can you anticipate every infraction or rule violation?”

Additionally, the rules should have a business necessity so they do not seem arbitrary. Incidents should be examined fairly and investigators should not go in with foregone conclusions, O’Toole said, stressing the importance of equal treatment. 

“The rules should apply consistently across the board, and discipline should be administered consistently across the board,” he added.

The system also should provide checks and balances, O’Toole said. He identified several issues for consideration: “Did the employee really understand what was expected of them? Did they really understand the hazards? The policies and rules that we expect employees to follow – are they reasonable?”

Complicated situations can arise, O’Toole noted, asking, “Are you going to throw away a 25-year employee for a mistake?” The answer, he said, will depend on the organization.

Discipline often is applied during an emotional time, such as following an incident in which an employee was hurt as a result of a rule violation. In those situations, O’Toole advised separating the injury from the infraction. “The consequences are inconsequential to the rule violation,” he said.
That may be easier said than done. O’Toole used the example of an employee who violates lockout/tagout and loses part of his finger: If lockout/tagout is one of the organization’s cardinal rules and termination is called for, an employer faces the quandary of firing a hurt worker or possibly appearing biased by giving the worker another chance.

Disciplinary action 
Who should be responsible for actually handing out discipline? In O’Toole’s view, responsibility falls on the employee’s immediate supervisor, although the safety professional should be consulted.

Bowen agreed but expressed concern about employers not giving enough weight to the safety professional’s recommendations – for instance, if the safety professional recommends termination but the human resources department hesitates out of concern that the employee will take legal action.

She emphasized that the culture of the organization – from the top down – has a direct bearing on the success of implementing disciplinary policies as it relates to safety compliance.

“Safety professionals should be involved in program development, training and systemic problem-solving, while middle management is accountable for implementing, funding and visibly supporting safety programs in their departments. And front-line supervisors should be safety role models and accountable for individual compliance,” Bowen said.

When OSHA comes knocking 

Even when employers choose to converse with employees rather than punish them, a formal system should be in place to document disciplinary action for multiple reasons.

When a supervisor approaches an employee about repeat absences, it helps to have the time card.  A supervisor should be able to point to the exact dates that he or she previously raised a safety issue with the employee, O’Toole said.

In the event of termination, the employer will need proper documentation to demonstrate a pattern of non-compliance.

The same goes for an OSHA inspection. Jeffrey Winchester, a partner in the Las Vegas office of the employment law firm Jackson Lewis LLP, said that without disciplinary records, employers may have trouble proving they enforce safety rules.

Employers may be hesitant to discipline an injured worker, but Winchester said discipline should be issued if the incident that led to an injury truly was rooted in a safety violation and there was sufficient training on the issue. “I think OSHA is going to be looking for that because my sense is that OSHA equates a lack of discipline for safety issues as a lack of focus on safety, which isn’t necessarily true, but it may be the perception at the agency,” he added.

Simply writing down safety violations and disciplinary actions is not enough; employers should pay attention to their filing system. Winchester warned against placing warnings for safety violations in the employee’s file along with paperwork for attendance and other non-safety issues.

Instead, safety-related disciplinary records should be kept in a separate and accessible format. Doing so also provides employers with a broad view of safety at their organization.

“If people are being verbally warned for, let’s say, failure to wear harnesses when they’re near fall hazards, a glance at the verbal warning log could show that maybe additional training or other action is needed before there’s an accident,” Winchester said.

He agrees with O’Toole that discipline should not always have a negative connotation. “I think the word discipline gets a bit of a bum rap,” Winchester said, “because discipline includes things like remedial training, reminders – those sorts of things that are designed to remind employees of the safety rules and to make sure employees are following those rules.”

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