Breaking Through Repeating Problems

I've never seen a "blame the worker" mindset create high-level safety performance--especially with repeating problems.

"Accident proneness" discussions seem to be repeating. Again. If you've been around for a while, you've likely heard some variation of this cycling around: "Are some people just too plain dumb/uncaring/uncoordinated that they keep having accidents?"; "And what can be done about (or to) them?"; "What kind of discipline can and should we use with these 'frequent flyers'?"

I've worked with several companies designing "accident repeater" interventions that have reports of significant positive strides (up to 80 percent reductions in anticipated/projected-on-course accidents from those previously identified as "repeaters.") And I've published on this topic since 1996. Of course, this doesn't make me all-knowing, just that I've been at this a while.

First off, selective perception rules. Where you look--and therefore where you don't--determines what you do. Just like the old saying, "If all you have is a hammer, the world looks like it's full of nails." I've found that over-focus on specific individuals' "accident proneness," "clumsiness," or "risk tolerance" is based on the underlying assumption that repetition is predominantly or entirely a personal issue, rather than a system problem. This isn't what I've found from working with many companies and getting detailed reports of attempted "interventions" that either died or backfired. The tendency is to overlook the possibility there's a systems problem.

Mindset leads actions. So those who see multiple incidents as caused by the failure/personal problems/difficulties within a "repeater" tend to default toward blaming, shaming, and then gaming "lame" workers. In essence, some leaders are quick pull out a hammer when confronted with a frustrating series of repeat injuries that skew safety performance downward. Perhaps some resort to punishment because they don't know what else to do? Or they themselves don't have the self-discipline to control their own frustration? I well understand feeling frustrated; however, strong leaders don't let this tail wag them.

The real problems are: 1) These leaders are often missing what's really going on and so are applying the equivalent of splints to a virus, or 2) Their "solutions" seriously backfire, or 3) They think there's nothing they can do and so don't address repetition.

No question, there are some workers who may initially have less coordination and more family and outside "distractions" and are less effective than others in dealing with stress, etc. But these are just some types of "repeaters." There are also some who take company policies seriously and report every incident; those who report a series of what looks like different problems but really have had poor medical management with one bad injury that never really healed or led to referred problems (i.e., knee problems can transfer extra force to the lower back.) I've some "repeaters" who are highly dedicated and sometimes try to do too much, thus exposing them to more risks. And much more. Further, there are many contributing factors to repetition, of which personal employee issues are just a few. So, yes, employees are often part of the problem. But that's different than labeling them as the problem. My experience is, highest-performing leaders see the forest and the trees within their own organization, however, this is not easy for too many.

For example, one professional recently asked me what to do about workers who had repeat injuries related to not using fall protection properly. Here, I suggest considering these questions: "Are there mixed messages/expectations nonverbally/culturally sent that workers have to hurry up, don't take extra time, to just get the job done?" "Have employees been trained on use of this PPE to the degree they understand and can easily apply?" "Have front-line supervisors reinforced expectations consistently about PPE use?" "Has anyone taken into account workers' perceptions of the existing PPE's comfort/practicality/value?" "Have other employees disregarded safety policies/procedures when workloads get heavy with a 'wink-wink' it's okay?" And more.

I fully agree that discipline is critical in management and leadership. However, when they don't get what they want, the default for many weak leaders (and parents too) is to equate "discipline" with punishment. But discipline literally also signifies "a field of study," implying structured learning (just as a disciple learns from her master). Further, "accountability" can too often imply "you're accountable (I'm not)," where it should best expand beyond punishment into learning and reinforcement for performing as desired. The attempt to instill fear in others under the guise of adjusting their behavior is limited at best. Intel Chair Emeritus Andrew Grove wrote, "Fear never motivates peak performance, only minimal performance." Sure enough, I've seen this far too many times companies resorting to discipline for repeat accidents (ranging from embarrassment to looking down on "perpetrators" to forced days off or more) running afoul of bargaining units in big ways. Or just severing employee engagement. I've never seen a "blame the worker" mindset create high-level safety performance--especially with repeating problems.

Punishment should be a last and not a first resort. Immediately blaming workers and enlisting "discipline" can often stem from a superficial safety investigation, or perhaps the result of a blinding bias that workers are out to mess the system on purpose. Best leaders focus on what they can do differently, where they can take control to create superior results; weak leaders tend to blame and try to force others to change--ultimately a losing proposition.

There's a lot more, of course. This is just scratching the surface. Best leaders discipline themselves to go beyond the easy answer (back belts, anyone?) or first emotional reaction to a problem.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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