In the past, a client told me about their new safety program. They had some good protocol in place, and they were ready to make an example out of their first violator. It was almost as if they were trying to push their employees into screwing up so that they could then publicly scold them and put them into the safety “Time-out” as if they were a toddler that threw a toy.
I, first of all, praised the client for starting a program about safety. Most days having anything in place is better than nothing at all, or even worse, just ignoring the elephant in the room. But you also have to know how to properly enforce the safety program without going crazy on people. The crazier you are, the more likely your staff will only be acting safely when you are within eyesight. The next time you go off the floor back to your office, they go back to their devilish ways removing guards, stuffing machines beyond capacity, and lifting without proper form.
This is a delicate situation–using discipline to enforce safety. Not everyone responds to the same type of discipline or even cares.
Everyone has their own issues and qualms, so how do you even implement a safety program if you have no idea how to discipline the safety violators?
• Communicate the program and the associated disciplines
A safety plan is not good if employees do not know about it. You have to communicate across all lines of business, all job titles, all shifts, all management, and everybody else in between. Everyone needs to know not only the safety program but the associated disciplines that go along with it. They should also know the varying disciplines that coincide with job title or seniority, if applicable. Perhaps you have harsher discipline for those workers with more seniority because they should know better, and it is not fair to really punish the new guy who maybe didn’t know any better. Effective communication puts everyone on the same page right from the start. Make each employee sign the paperwork stating that they read it, understand it, and will abide by it.
• Progressive discipline is a good idea, but so is zero tolerance
It seems fair that the punishment for first offenses, minor infractions, and inadvertent slip-ups should be easier than someone that completely disregarded safety gear or failed to latch-up their backup line. However, in my opinion, if you go easy on the minor stuff, then you might as well not even have it listed in your safety program at all. Some people just do not care about getting dinged for a minor infraction. Case in point, a guy I went to college with used to park in the wrong lot because it was closer to his dorm. The ticket was $5. After he accumulated 4, he would mail in a $20 bill. He did not care at all. Now, had the ticket been $100, per incident, I bet he would have not parked in that lot. The same applies to your minor safety violations. Some people just won’t care about getting a minor infraction. Make the punishment a good one, right from the start. This promotes a zero-tolerance atmosphere and should keep everyone on their toes.
If you fail to heed my advice, at least use the standard art of ramping discipline, which consists of Oral Warning, Written Warning, Suspension, and Termination.
• You have to apply the discipline fairly across the board
Failure to apply fairness to your discipline will result in probable retaliation claims down the road. Retaliation claims are always far worse and more subjective than real claims themselves. They are usually messy and filed by disgruntled employees with a bone to pick with management for some past injustice. As the employer, you also have to be fair in the equipment you provide. If someone fails to wear their safety gear because it is already broken or fails to properly fit the employee, then you discipline them for said failure; you could be held liable for not providing replacement or proper gear.
• Be consistent!
Discipline for failure to comply with safety programs has to be consistent. Remember that discipline should be used to change behavior that leads to accidents. Work rules have to be consistently enforced at all times. Workers that fail to comply with the safety program despite proper training and guidance should be dealt with in compliance with your discipline program. Failure to ramp up discipline for repeat offenders just leads to repeat infractions and not correct behavior. If you went through all the trouble to create a safety program and discipline program, it needs to be enforced every time, all the time, by the parameters that you set. You have to lead by example and every violation, every time.
• Document all infractions every single time
A paper record needs to be made each time a violation occurs. Proper management personnel needs to be copied in as well. This way, everyone knows what is going on throughout the management layers of your company. Everyone has to be on board for a successful program to work.
Breakdowns in communication lead to compliance problems no matter what the setting. The written record of infraction should include the action of violation, the safety rule that was violated, the discipline that was handed down, and the corrections made in order to prevent the infraction from occurring again in the future. The violator should also sign off on the documentation, and they should be given a copy as well. This way, everyone involved has a copy of all of the paperwork.
Starting a discipline program like this takes a lot of work, consistency, and follow-through. But if you stick to your guns, you will see improvements in safety. Those improvements will lead to fewer injuries, and it will improve your bottom line down the road. You should see immediate improvement, and at the end of the day, any improvements are worth the effort and time you put in to get this program off the ground.
Author Michael Stack, CEO Amaxx LLC. He is an expert in workers’ compensation cost containment systems and helps employers reduce their workers’ comp costs by 20% to 50%. He works as a consultant to large and mid-market clients, is a co-author of Your Ultimate Guide To Mastering Workers Comp Costs, a comprehensive step-by-step manual of cost containment strategies based on hands-on field experience, and is the founder & lead trainer of Amaxx Workers’ Comp Training Center, which offers the Certified Master of Workers’ Compensation national designation.
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