Better Discipline for Safety Violations

Contributed by Safety Management Group

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Even if they were not mandated by law, workplace safety programs benefit workers and employers alike by reducing the number of injuries, enhancing productivity, and even improving the quality of work performed. When everyone knows and follows the rules, everyone benefits from a safer workplace.

Unfortunately, there are times when an employee fails to follow the rules, whether it’s a deliberate act or an example of simple ignorance. That’s where a discipline program comes in. While few safety professionals and site supervisors want to be seen as police who sweep through the job looking for wrongdoers, they do need to verify that workers are using safe practices and correct those who are putting themselves and their co-workers in danger.

What is discipline?

Most people associate discipline with punishment. For many, it conjures memories of childhood and school days, when a misdeed might result in a spanking or a time-out. Those impressions tend to put discipline in a negative light.

In reality, though, discipline is a process through which supervisors encourage people to act in the ways they are supposed to. Handled effectively, discipline can actually be a form of positive motivation and reinforcement.

When discipline is approached solely as punishment, it creates resentment, and tends to create situations in which people do the right things when they know they’re being watched, and then ignore the rules when the supervisor is away. Punishment-based discipline also discourages honesty in reporting injuries or problems.

Ideally, employees will follow the safe course of action because they believe in your company’s safety culture. If the only reason they follow the rules is because they’re afraid of punishment, your organization has failed to instill safety as a core value.

Effective discipline supports employees

An effective approach to discipline is one that’s designed to support employees for doing the right things and that uses constructive corrections when they fail to act as they should. To be effective, a discipline program must be clearly communicated and applied fairly and consistently.

By recognizing good behavior and reducing the amount of “bad” behavior, such a program will be appreciated by most employees rather than being perceived as a negative on the worksite. If it is implemented consistently, no one should feel that they’ve been singled out or unfairly held up as an example.

Instead of punishing employees for violations of safety rules, you can take a positive approach by using the violation as a teachable moment. Point out that the employee’s behavior was inconsistent with the organization’s commitment to safe work practices, and ask if there was a reason for his or her failure to comply. As an example, if a worker failed to wear the required personal protective equipment, ask if there was a reason for his or her decision. Perhaps he or she forgot it, or may not have even been aware that it was required for the task. You can also ask if there is anything the company can do to help the worker stay in compliance in the future. In this example, there may be a more comfortable type of PPE that workers would be more likely to use.

When you take this approach, you call attention to the violation in a non-threatening way. This shows the worker that you’re genuinely concerned about his or her well-being, provides an opportunity to explain the action, and helps identify if there may be a need for additional safety training on your site.

Taking a more traditional punishment approach—such as sending the worker home for the day without pay—creates a sense of powerlessness and incompetence. It doesn’t address any problems that may underlie the violation, and it can build resentment on the worksite.

Progressive responses

How you handle the situation should also depend upon the nature and the severity of the violation. A small violation that doesn’t place anyone at risk of injury should be handled differently from a mistake with severe consequences, such as failing to follow lockout/tagout rules when working on electrical or mechanical equipment.

Effective discipline programs are also progressive. If a particular worker commits repeated violations of safety rules, responding to each with more severe penalties may be needed. However, if the worker appears to be unwilling to abide by the company’s safety culture, the best answer may be termination.

Who is responsible?

On some sites, employers look to safety professionals to deliver discipline, but it actually makes more sense for the employee’s immediate supervisor to handle the process. After all, making sure employees work properly is a key facet of supervision, and the supervisor has more opportunities to observe the worker and correct behavior as needed.
Supervisors are often hesitant to carry out that role. Sometimes, that’s because they don’t want to be seen as the “bad guy” onsite. Sometimes, it’s because they have close relationships with the workers they oversee. And very often, it’s because the supervisor never really received any training on effective methods of discipline, making the process uncomfortable and unpleasant for both parties.

One advantage of the method described in this article is that it turns discipline into a positive process that can actually strengthen the working relationship between the supervisor and the employee. Instead of delivering a punishment, the supervisor demonstrates a concern for the employee’s well-being. By taking this proactive approach, the supervisor may be able to head off practices that could lead to a serious injury.

You must document

The other critical element of workplace discipline programs is proper documentation of disciplinary actions regardless of the nature of the discipline. Even if the supervisor was able to resolve the issue with a friendly conversation, it’s important to make and file a record of the conversation. That creates a paper trail that can protect the employer’s interests in the event that an employee is terminated because of a record of poor compliance.

Having records of all disciplinary actions—from basic conversations to more significant actions—will also show an OSHA inspector that the company takes its responsibility to ensure compliance with its safety program seriously.

Many companies place documentation regarding discipline in their employees’ personnel records. A better idea is to maintain a separate file of disciplinary safety actions. By reviewing and comparing all those actions, the company may be able to identify gaps in its safety program. If half of the actions in the file are related to improper use of PPE, it may be time to change or increase training on that subject.

Don’t encourage non-reporting

One potential landmine when it comes to discipline is safety incentive programs that inadvertently give employees a reason not to report workplace injuries. Suppose you have a program in which employees in each area of your facility receive a quarterly bonus if there are no reportable incidents during that quarter. If an employee suffers an injury, fellow employees or the supervisor may urge him not to report it, so their bonus isn’t endangered.

Safety programs that may discourage reporting are one of the things OSHA inspectors have been watching for in recent years. If you currently use such an approach, you should consider finding a better way to incentivize safe behavior. By doing so, you’ll avoid regulatory problems and get more honest results from your safety program.

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