Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Should We Use Punishment When an Injury Occurs?

Should we use punishment when an injury occurs? That is the question Nicole Gravina, a consultant for Reaching Results, and her colleagues aimed to answer in their presentation at the 2013 National Safety Congress and Expo.

“Oftentimes, organizations use something that I call permanent punishers,” says Gravina, referring to disciplinary actions such as termination or demotion that offer little opportunity for the organization as a whole to learn from the mistake. She suggests that when possible, organizations should instead require training for the individual who caused the incident so that knowledge can be gained from the punishment.

Gravina notes that since people are unlikely to make the same mistake twice, terminating an employee after an incident has occurred can mean eliminating someone who is less likely than other workers to make that particular mistake in the future.

Some behaviors may require termination in order to demonstrate that managers are serious about keeping the workplace safe, so Gravina believes that establishing 10 “deal breaker” behaviors that result in immediate termination can be useful as long as all other behaviors are kept open for discussion.

Punishment typically reduces behavior, and although it should ideally reduce unsafe actions, it most often reduces reporting behavior, says Gravina. If workers fear punishment, they are less likely to report near-misses and minor incidents. Not only can punishment discourage honesty, it also often damages relationships and morale by fostering a culture of distrust between workers and managers.  

According to Gravina, punishment places the responsibility for safety on bosses rather than on the entire workforce, and without punishment, workers are likely to feel responsible for their own actions. “The injury itself is most likely the punisher,” says Gravina. “Ninety-nine percent of the population are going to feel really bad if they [cause an injury] to someone else or themselves.”

To encourage personal responsibility for mistakes and incidents, Gravina advises asking the worker who caused the incident what s/he thinks is an appropriate disciplinary action. Often, workers assign themselves punishments that are harsher than any action their supervisor would have considered. Other times, workers provide useful information about how a similar incident can be prevented in the future.

Gravina adds that communication about safety must be made understandable for everyone involved. Workers sometimes display unsafe behavior in response to mixed messages and competing reinforcers created by different levels of management. For example, a worker’s direct supervisor may tell him or her to get a certain job done by a certain time when upper management has not provided the funding to supply tools needed for completing the task safely. Safety professionals often create poor communication about safety as well by sending safety e-mails that many workers are unable to decipher. Gravina says the average safety e-mail is written for a 16th-grade reading level, yet the average reading level of workers is 7th grade.

Workplaces can benefit greatly when managers talk to workers one-on-one about safety and solicit input from their employees. “We have to know what’s currently happening,” Gravina says. “We can only do that if we make [an environment in which] people are more honest about what’s currently happening.”