Can companies enforce safety without using punishment?

These are my notes from some of the lectures I attended at the 38th annual convention of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, which I attended in May.

I attended a lecture by Cloyd Hyten which focused on the use of punishment by large businesses and corporations, especially when trying to enforce safety rules. Interestingly, I saw a lot of parallels between this talk and some of the conversations I have with animal trainers, especially those new to clicker training and positive training methods.

This lecture was part of a series on organizational behavior management (OBM), a subset of behavior analysis. Behavior analysts who work in the area of OBM help large businesses and corporations use behavior analysis principles to increase productivity, improve employee morale, redesign staff training programs, and more.

Cloyd Hyten works for Aubrey Daniels International. He often works with companies that need to improve employee compliance with safety protocols. In many of these settings, employees who don’t follow safety procedures are at risk for injuries. Many companies take a traditional “police” approach to safety. Supervisors punish employees who violate safety rules or engage in risky behavior, in an attempt to correct employee behavior and to let those who get punished serve as examples to others. This is also a good example of negative reinforcement. The employee can avoid punishment by following the correct safety procedures.

Although employees do follow safety protocols to avoid punishment, a punishment-based system turns supervisors into cops and can lead to decreases in morale, productivity, and teamwork, as well as an increase in turn over. Most troubling, employees in a workplace that uses punishment are less likely to report problems and incidents.

However, some companies are moving toward a more constructive approach to safety.
Rather than relying on punishment to stop unsafe behaviors, some companies are shifting to using positive reinforcement to reward safe behavior. This often leads to an increase in communication and trust between supervisors and employees.

Unsurprisingly, many companies still want to reserve punishment for “life-critical” rule violations. These companies argue that occasionally using punishment shows that the company is serious about safety, is often seen as fair by the majority, and will prevent life-threatening injuries.

However, when people don’t follow safety protocols, it’s usually not because they are trying to be unsafe. In many instances, following the safety protocol is a nuisance: it takes more time, effort, or hassle and can even be pretty unpleasant (such as wearing heavy safety gear while working in the summer heat). Even though the safety protocols are in the employee’s best interest, a life-threatening injury usually seems like a far removed possibility. If employees think safety procedures are inconvenient or annoying, punishment (or even positive consequences) will often be ineffective. Rather than punishing rule violators, Hyten argued that companies should search for innovative solutions that make it simple for people to follow safety protocols.

Supervisors should find ways to reduce the time or effort needed for employees to follow the safety procedures, rather than attempting to enforce procedures employees don’t want to follow. This could include better designed equipment or rearranging how safety items are stored so that they are easier to access.

Usually, these types of solutions require management to invest more time, money and effort up front. However, these sorts of solutions can have big pay offs in the end if they lead to safety protocols that are simpler and easier for employees to follow and if supervisors no longer have to resort to punishment.

Many animal trainers, especially those new to clicker training, end up in similar positions to managers and supervisors trying to enforce safety rules. I have met many trainers who are committed to finding positive solutions to training problems, but who still want to reserve the use of punishment for a few certain situations. As in company safety, animal trainers need to shift their thinking away from ways to eliminate unwanted behavior. Instead, trainers should focus on managing and arranging the environment so that it is very easy for the animal to do the correct behavior. Then, the trainer won’t have to constantly nag the animal to do the correct behavior or have to punish unwanted behavior.

What do you think? Are there ever times when it’s okay to use punishment?

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