His carelessness caused the accident. He simply didn’t follow procedures. I checked his employee file and it shows he received training last year. We told him before and he just chose to ignore the warnings. We’ve got to make sure he doesn’t cause another accident and send a strong message to others that this kind of carelessness and failure to follow procedures will NOT be tolerated!
Does that sound familiar? Unfortunately, that’s how safety is often managed, by disciplinary action. It makes us feel good because we have taken action to correct a problem with an employee. We correct the problem by focusing on the behavior. I know, because that’s how I managed safety as a front-line supervisor. Besides, it can’t be my fault, I’m the supervisor, safety manager, _______________ (fill in the blank), so it must be the employee’s fault.
Managing by disciplinary action can be successful if achieving minimum standards is your goal. You are not likely to get that extra 10% of discretionary effort if that’s how safety is managed. Neither are you likely to build a foundation for a strong safety culture and high employee engagement. If you want your team to achieve a higher standard then push disciplinary action to the bottom of your management tool list or just remove it.
Instead, before you push the “Go” button on disciplinary action for a safety infraction or in the aftermath of an incident, conduct a thorough investigation and ask yourself:
Did we have a documented procedure to cover this situation?
Did we communicate the procedure?
Did we train the procedure?
Did we enforce the procedure through observations, recognition, inspections, etc?
Did we measure compliance with the procedure and provide feedback?
If you answered “yes” to each question, you no longer have a safety issue, but a management issue. At this point, turn the case over to Human Resources or whoever is responsible for handing out discipline. If you could not answer “yes” to every question, you have an opportunity to make a correction in a process and build a positive safety culture. Handing out disciplinary action in this situation creates distrust and that is not the making of a strong safety culture.
You can’t, nor should you attempt to “proceduralize” every situation or possibility, nor should you discipline for using poor judgment especially when the employee had good intentions which often seems to be the case.
I have shared with you my experience with safety management, culture, and disciplinary action. If you manage an operations team and struggle with these issues, I can help. Leaders are not expected to know everything. When it comes to building a strong safety culture, a safety consultant with experience provides value beyond injury and cost reduction.
One more thing, if you did answer “yes” to every question, I want to hear from you. That would be a story worth telling.