As safety professionals, it is not uncommon to be the unfortunate recipient of comments with respect to the contents of the Safety Manual/ Program/Procedures. After all of the customer and regulatory requirements have been considered for your particular organization, and you’ve spent innumerable hours ensuring that relevant potential and real hazards/risks have been considered, the question still comes: “Why is _______ program in here?”
Usually, there’s a pretty good justification. If you’re “hands on” as a safety leader, this is an opportunity to build personable credibility within your organization, and demonstrate a technical competence for the application of safety principles. In fact, you should be able to go through each and every safety program in your organization’s manual and be able to identify its value to the organization except one: the disciplinary program.
Before you start freaking out, I will freely admit that disciplinary programs are useful in some organizations, except when it comes to safety. If the HR department wants to take on the role of “criminalizing” behavior (e.g. promptness, intrapersonal conflicts, etc.), that’s a bit outside of the purview of the safety professional. We can’t be all things to all people.
However, within the context of the organizational safety program, what purpose does the disciplinary program serve? What are the unintended effects of having (and more importantly, vigorously enforcing) such a program?
I can think of three good reasons.
Name, Blame, & Shame
When things go wrong, it is easy to point a finger at an “offending party.” For most safety professionals, there are often a number of proximal and related causes for a particular incident. In most cases, however, the apparent root cause is usually related somehow to “human error.” Human error is a disingenuous term or explanation for incident investigations, and many investigations stop at this point. After all, if there wasn’t a mechanical basis for the incident (machine), then it must have been human error, right?
Disciplinary programs assign error to people, who get unfairly blamed for doing the best they can, especially as a result of investigations. When the investigation results in “human error” or “procedure not followed,” you’re at the beginning of your investigation, not the end.
Destruction of Safety Culture
One of the more dangerous unspoken messages that you can send to an organization, is by “criminalizing” human error. If there is an employee working in your organization whose error results in an incident, do you create a victim of that employee? If we, as safety professionals, know that 95% of the time the safety management system or program is a causal factor (if not the root cause), why do we continue to endorse discipline?
Better yet, what state of mind to you think that employee is going to be in following being disciplined for doing his/her job? If we are trying to increase employee engagement across a workforce, how does this further a goal? Are we only able to achieve safety performance through discipline and control?
Creation of a Second Victim
By criminalizing human error, the associate who bears a disproportionate brunt of the blame from the organization or other stakeholders becomes a second victim. Often time, critical factors are outside his/her control. Sometimes they have been working in a system where 999 times out of 1,000, the same behavior has not produced the same result.
Second victims are the result of the Name, Blame, and Shame process. This type of scapegoating creates environments where people look out for themselves, which runs counter to what we then turn around and tell them with respect to behavior-based safety. These second victims are seen as incompetent by their peers, and their reputation suffers.
There will always be people who are not the correct fit for the job and/or organization, but alienating them from a power position sets a bad example for the organization. For more information on understanding your personnel and building safety culture download our free white paper on personalities and safety.