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Can Employee Safety Have a Punitive Result? Yes, But Here's Why It Shouldn't.

Posted by EHS Insight Resources on August 16, 2021 at 6:53 PM

As the saying goes, you get more flies with honey than vinegar. Sometimes, though, when employees take truly dangerous actions that put themselves and others at serious risk, you need a disciplinary response to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

But can employee safety have a punitive result? Not just a disciplinary action given in response to egregiously risky behavior, but safety that functions as a punishment on its own.

Yes – but it shouldn’t. Here’s why.

What is Punitive Culture?

A punitive culture is a fancy way of saying punishment culture. Punitive simply means inflicting or aiming to inflict punishment.

When we talk about punitive culture, we’re talking about a culture focused on punishing bad behavior, such as when employees do something they’re not supposed to. And while it’s easy to lump this in with performance improvement, it’s important to understand that punitive culture focuses in the opposite direction. It focuses on punishing employees when they’ve done something wrong, not helping them improve.

In other words, it focuses on bad behavior, not ways to encourage good behavior.

Can Employee Safety Have a Punitive Result?

Employee safety can have a punitive result. For example, if you see an employee loading a piece of equipment on a truck improperly and you know that machine will come flying off and kill someone at any moment, a punitive response makes sense, especially if you know that the employee ought to know better.

In this case, a punitive response is essential to correct an extremely dangerous error that may result in serious or fatal harm.

However, there’s a difference between a punitive result and a punitive culture.

The previous example was a punitive result, and a case where the result was deserved. A punitive culture, on the other hand, is not an isolated case of extreme hazards but a pattern across your whole organization. You don’t pay attention to positive behavior–you’re always looking to discipline bad behavior.

This is the difference between good managers and bad ones. Punitive cultures overwhelmingly inspire resentment and apprehension. It also translates directly into a culture where no one learns from their mistakes. By punishing individuals rather than improving systems, punitive cultures encourage employees to avoid reporting problems for fear of punishment and instead report only those problems that they can’t hide.

In simple terms, the message is “Stay safe or you’ll get punished” which isn’t a productive safety motto.

Finding the Balance Between Discipline and Safety

So, how do you strike a balance between necessary punitive measures and positive safety culture?

First, recognize that punitive measures may sometimes be necessary, but they should only be used as a last resort. They should only be applied in cases where a hazard or hazardous behavior is so egregious that it can cause serious or even fatal harm.

Otherwise, your goal is not to punish individuals. Your goal is to reward individuals for identifying problems, identify the systemic issues that led to those problems, and take steps to correct them. You want to actively involve workers in the safety process as a core value of your organization, not just a source of reward or a way to avoid punishment.

Let’s Strengthen Your Safety Culture

Can employee safety have a punitive result? Yes. But if you’re doing safety the right way, it shouldn’t have to.

That’s where we can help, with safety management software that makes it easy to identify safety trends and improve your safety culture in real-time. So if you’re ready to invest in a safer future, get in touch to learn how our software can help.

Topics: Workplace Health and Safety, Training Management, Incident Management, Safety Management, Safety Culture

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