Safety and OSHA News

Catch-22 of disciplining workers for safety violations?

A worker reports an injury. An investigation shows the injury was caused because the worker ignored a safety rule. Under company policy, the employee is disciplined. Now, other workers aren’t reporting injuries because they don’t want to be disciplined. What do you do?

The question is more important these days because OSHA is cracking down on underreporting of occupational injuries.

A report issued in November by the Government Accountability Office showed some employers underreport injuries to reduce insurance premiums and workers fail to report injuries because they fear being fired.

In the wake of that report, OSHA unleashed a National Emphasis Program on recordkeeping. The targets: companies in high-injury industries that report much lower than average injury rates.

An article in Business Week highlights this current situation.

Example: AK Steel reduced its annual injuries by 96% from 1994 to 2009.

It’s that type of injury improvement that raises the eyebrows of some workplace safety experts. “It is extremely unlikely that injury rates would plummet like this,” said Susan Baker, a scholar of workplace injuries at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

AK Steel had good cause to improve its safety practices: 10 workers died at company plants from 1993 to 1996, leading to a $1.9 million OSHA fine.

But some former AK Steel workers tell Business Week that injuries appear to be down because workers who report them are penalized with time off without pay.

An AK Steel spokesman says, “We make no apologies for our safety program and all of its components, including discipline.” At the same time, the company considers not reporting an injury an “extraordinarily serious offense.”

How do you hold employees responsible for safety rules through discipline, yet make sure you don’t discourage reporting of workplace injuries? Let us know what you think in the Comments Box below.

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  • Mike K

    What is the nature of the injury? Is it a doctor visit or just a trip to the first aid kit? My policy is that I want to know about all injuries even if it is fixable by just a band-aid. However, I am certain I am not told about the bulk of these minor injuries, but I’m not getting bent out of shape over it. Now if the injury requires a doctors visit, then I absolutely need to know about it and if the person did violate a safety rule then it needs to be addressed. If you don’t implement punitive measures in the safety program then OSHA will declare the program ineffective.

  • Steve S

    To me the key is communication with the workers. The clear expectation that everything is reported so the company and workers can identify root cause and system gaps so others don’t get hurt. Dicipline needs to be communicated that it is for performance issues not because of injury. By focusing on not following safe work practices, or rules or code the result was the injury and the reason for dicipline will be poor performance (if the investigation supports that). It is always a fine line between having workers be accountable and winning the information war.

  • Warren Fothergill

    Within the UK reporting of incidents and accidents is a legal requirement. However, you have to be aware of the principle behaviour of the employee and what they want – namely a safe place of work. To promote this, you look at 2 potential routes as an employer ‘the carrot’ or ‘the stick’, both need to be used in the right way, in the right place and at the right time.

    Do you reward good practice or do you use just the stick and punish poor behaviour?

    I think from the statement published, there are further avenues which to look at the route cause. We have 3 avenues, Technical, Behavioural and Procedural from which you would look to establish the areas of weakness that resulted in injury – however these are never really assessed within its context. Start developing or looking at behavioural concepts – Hale & Hale model, Hale & Glendon models are good starter which to begin.

  • Kel

    Reporting accidents and close calls is essential for the employee and employer. More information means more focus can be put on improving existing safety measures and implementing new ones. My workers now face disciplinary actions for unsafe acts and I already have seen improvement in the way my people work. Discipline doesn’t mean everything will be covered up and not reported, it means more safety awareness because no one wants to get a day off or even fired.

  • Jack M. Lowe

    I interviewed for a position a few years ago and while speaking with the HR Manager she informed me that she was intending to give testimony in an industrial accident hearing. This was in Missouri and the state had just passed legislation providing that injured employees that had hurt themselves as a result of violating a safety standard could have their industrial insurance benefits reduced up to 50%. THis worker had reached into a rock chute and lost his arm.
    Its a hard life!

  • A Christina

    Companies need to follow through on fixing safety issues that are reported by the workers and standing by the Companies promise that Safety is #1, not Safety is #1 when convenient for the company. Reports of unsafe issues are reported by workers, but due to cost, are left as they are. Also, if employee is injured, it is found that a “safety” rule was broken. Hummmmmmmm. Convenient. Companies also force workers to come into work after an injury to avoid osha recordables and not have. a lost time injury. Requests for safety changes go unheard, therefore, the workers stop wasting their breath reporting them.

  • Linda

    We have a possitive enforcment. We pay our employees for doing weekly safety audits in every area of the warehouse and office. Then filling out a hazard alert for any thing that is or could be
    dangerous. Each month we all get a small bonus on our paychecks.
    I agree with both the above statements. Communication is key. People need to know what the discipline will be if a company rule is violated. Then addressing the issues seperately. An injury Needs to be reported immediatly, (more than just a cut that needs a bandaid) and then if someone is breaking a rule, safety or otherwise, then that needs to be addressed also.

  • james

    there are a few ways to work this issue, the first is to base it on a RCA then all in valued in the accident will loss something (in our case they loss 100 safety point /$1000 of cost up to a max of 500 points) next use fines before accident happen we have put in place a program that if you a caught not using PPE or other required safety equipment you pay is downgraded to minimum wage for the job or 8 hours. If the team leader allow this so is his. We have given the candy for years now it time for the stick. When we did this we had the team member and their spouse sign that they got the policy. This way they put some pressure on them to. For the first 2 months we would just give them a warring. But they went through the entire step as if we were taking pay. This way they knew it was not a joke. But again it is based on a RCA program. One of the other thing we did to keep the RCA from being this feared thing in the company, is we do them for operational issue this way our team members are exposed to them before they have a safety issue. Be doing this and not firing people we now have team members stand up and say it was my fault. But by then in of the RCA many are not at fault but the one that are know in their heart they thereby we have no kick back from the employees over the program. Remember every safety tool is also a operation tool.

  • Mike R

    How do you hold employees responsible for safety rules through discipline, yet make sure you don’t discourage reporting of workplace injuries?

    I would have rather you asked “How do you get employees to act responsibly concerning safety rules and not discourage reporting of workplace injuries?”

    It would appear that your question has a condition that makes it self fulfilling. The condition is that “discipline” is the way only to hold employees responsible. “Discipline” of course is then taken to mean “punishment” which is then relies on fear as the prime motivator. Fear, of course, only works to motivate until the “danger or risk” falls below an acceptable level.

    Effective long term motivation comes when the person will get something personally satisfying. Answering the “WIIFM” (what’s in it for me). Many times safety rules come down from above and is seen as fulfilling someone else’s accomplishments and are driven by fear. The natural response from those who don’t buy in or fail to embrace the rules fully are excuses.

    Help employees see the safety benefit for themselves. Set up programs that reward individuals and groups for positive safety behaviors and statistics. Encourage problem identification AND problem solving and suggestions. Help employees to become part of the solution rather than thinking of them as part of the problem.

  • Kel

    So Mike you don’t believe enforcing safety rules doesn’t work? I will have to disagree with you, my solutions have improved safety, improved reporting practices and notifying us when equipment becomes unsafe. You are always going to have employees who won’t report close calls, just the way it is but, my workers have already come up with new ideas to improve practices. Two fold solution, gives them input and discourages hiding unsafe actions. Many ideas have merit and the buy in by most of the people has been better than I’d hoped for.

  • Kman

    There must always be a fine balance between punishment and a method to change behavior. If we are punitive only, we lose credibility. What most don’t think about is discipline after an injury is way too late…the most lagging indicator or safety process. Also, for the most aggressive companies, discipline is given out for ‘human error’ as well as safety violations. There are very distinct differences…in choice/intent vs. unintentional error. I have no problem holding someone accountable with a focus on discipline that addresses changing their behavior for choosing to violate a policy…as long as root cause doesn’t indicate an accepted practice by management. There is so much to lose with inconsistent or unreasonable discipline…that a ‘culture of fear’ can creep into a site…whether a perception of fear or a reality of fear.

    We must not hang our hat on accountability…it is a tool of safety but at the end of the day, the ‘worst’ lagging indicator/activity. The majority of accountability should be coaching ‘before’ an injury so that we are not just reacting to people getting hurt. The more frequent your coaching methods (especially from front line supervisors), the faster you build the good habits. And if/when we do have to have accountability after-or-before the injury – ensure it goes deep enough to touch root causes and not just the immediate action that triggered the incident.

    All in all, I pray we lead a culture of caring about each other that breaks down the barriers of us vs. them – union vs. management, etc. There should be 5 to 1 ratio of focused proactive leading activities to every one lagging activity. So use your box of safety tools wisely to create and sustain a culture of caring.