Course 116 Introduction to Safety Accountability

Consequences and Evaluation

Element 4: Application of Effective Consequences

What is a Consequence?

A "consequence" is anything that occurs as a result of something that happens. Another way to express it is to think it in terms of cause and effect: the initial behavior is the "cause," and the consequence is the "effect." For every cause, there is an effect. The effect may be something that affects you internally, externally, or both.

Be careful, or you'll suffer the natural consequences!
(Click to enlarge)

In each example below, the initial behavior or action is the cause: the reaction or response is the effect or consequence. Let's look at some examples:

  • You don't pay attention when pounding a nail (cause), SO you hit your thumb with the hammer, and it hurts. (effect)
  • You don't think safety is important, SO you get injured taking an unsafe shortcut on the job.
  • Your supervisor sees you take an unsafe shortcut, SO he gives you a written warning.

Is there any escape from consequences?

Not in the workplace. It's important to understand there is no such thing as "no consequence" for an action. You cannot NOT have a consequence. For instance, if a supervisor thanks a worker for making a safety suggestion, the supervisor's recognition is a consequence (positive). If the supervisor ignores the worker who made the safety suggestion, the "act" of ignoring is also a consequence (negative).

Effective consequences increase desired behaviors.

If employee safety performance meets or exceeds the standards set by the employer, you know consequences are effective. When employees meet or exceed performance standards, some sort of positive recognition should follow. On the other hand, if employees make informed choices not to comply with the company's safety performance standards, some sort of appropriate corrective action should follow.

Every cause has an effect.

1. How can you tell when a consequence has been effective?

a. Employees behave when only when being supervised
b. Employees work only to stay out of trouble
c. Employees take shortcuts when unsupervised
d. Employees meet or exceed performance standards

Positive and Negative Recognition

There are various strategies for using positive and negative consequences in for form of rewards and recognition to influence employee safety performance. Let's take a look at three forms of recognition that from most-effective to least-effective.

A sincere handshake can go a long way!
(Click to enlarge)

Positive Recognition

Positive Recognition occurs when the recognition of performance is perceived as a positive consequence (a carrot). (e.g., a hand shake, thank-you, or promotion). To receive positive recognition, employees will work hard to not only comply, but to achieve excellence. Positive recognition is best in producing performance excellence and a world-class safety culture. If a supervisor actively recognizes excellence, the supervisor will get excellent performance.

It's important to know that "desired" performance may not always be safe performance. Unfortunately, this may be true in safety cultures where it is more important to work fast than safe. In this instance, working fast takes top priority over safety. Prioritizing safety down is especially true when the employer is under pressure to finish a project on time. Here are some examples showing how perceived positive recognition can increase both safe and unsafe behaviors:

  • Recognition that increases safe performance: Your supervisor thanks you if you comply with all the safety rules.
  • Recognition that increases unsafe performance: Your supervisor gives you time off if you finish ahead of schedule, even if you jeopardize your safety.

Important criteria to remember about positive recognition include:

  • It increases desired performance, and employees may work far beyond mere compliance to be recognized.
  • The desired performance can be safe or unsafe. If the desired performance is to work fast, employees will prioritize working quickly, not safe.
  • This strategy is more common when employers value, rather than prioritize safety.
  • Employees may perform far beyond minimum standards though voluntary effort.
  • If the desired performance standard is to work safely, no matter what - it's a value-based safety culture. It's "safe production or no production."
  • This type of recognition is the most effective in achieving a world-class safety culture.

2. Which strategy may result in performance far beyond mere compliance with safety standards?

a. Ignoring performance
b. Positive recognition
c. Negative recognition
d. 100% enforcement of safety

Positive and Negative Recognition (Continued)

Negative Recognition

Negative Recognition occurs when the recognition of performance is perceived as a negative consequence (a stick). (e.g., yelling, discipline, or termination). To avoid negative recognition, employees will work to comply, but little more. If the supervisor actively uses this negative recognition strategy, employees will respond negatively in thought and action.

Important criteria of negative recognition include:

  • Employees will perform only to avoid the perceived negative consequences - nothing else.
  • The desired performance may be safe or unsafe.
  • This strategy is more common when employers prioritize, rather than value safety.
  • Employees will perform to minimum standard but not beyond: just enough to stay out of trouble.
  • The focus is on compliance, not excellence. It's a fear-based strategy.
  • If the desired performance standard is to work fast, not safe - it's a priority-based safety culture. Production takes priority over safety.
  • This strategy is less effective in achieving a world-class safety culture.

Once again, the outcome is dependent on the performance that the employer wants. Hopefully, the employer values safety, but that's not always the case. Here are some examples that show how negative recognition can increase both safe and unsafe performance:

  • Recognition that increases safe performance: The supervisor promises you won't be reprimanded you if you comply with safety rules, so you are sure to follow the rules.
  • Recognition that increases unsafe performance: The supervisor yells at you for not working fast enough to finish a hazardous job on time.

3. Which recognition strategy is more common when employers prioritize, rather than value safety?

a. Positive punishment
b. Positive recognition
c. Negative recognition
d. Negative punishment
One winner - many losers! Positive reinforcement for one - negative punishment for many.

Why Recognition Programs Fail

One of the most common reasons recognition programs fail is because they have formal policies and procedures that create one employee being deemed the winner (Employee of the Quarter, etc.) and many losers.

In such formal programs, both positive and negative recognition of performance occur at the same time. They reward one employee for being first, best, or most improved. In safety recognition programs like that, the one lucky winner receives positive recognition (usually a certificate and framed photo on the wall and a parking space), yet at the same time, everyone else receives, unintentionally, no recognition at all. They walk away from the recognition ceremony with all sorts of negative thoughts and feelings because they perceive themselves as losers. Everyone may be equally valuable to the company and performed at or above expectations, but since the "policy" said there can be only one winner, positive recognition is withheld from the majority of employees. Sadly, the result is one winner and many losers. We've all probably experienced this kind of recognition program, so you know what we're talking about.

Proactive Recognition Programs That Work

The best strategy is a recognition program that is criterion-based and recognizes everyone who meets the criteria for recognition. The goal is to have many winners who all meet or exceed management expectations. There are many safety recognition programs which offer incentives: some incentives work and some don't. Here's a short list of proven successful safety recognition programs with incentives that, if administered correctly, can work for the company:

  • Safety Bucks: Supervisors carry safety bucks, and when they are impressed when they see someone doing something right, they reward them. The employee can take the safety buck to the company cafeteria for lunch, or they can use it at a local participating store to purchase items.
  • Bonus Programs: When an employee identifies a hazard in the workplace that could cause serious physical harm or a fatality, they are rewarded with a bonus check. In some cases the bonus check is a fixed amount. In other programs the bonus check is a small percentage of the potential direct cost for the accident that might have occurred.
  • Safety Heroes: After an extended period of time, employees are rewarded with a certificate or bonus check for complying with company safety rules.
  • Reporting hazards, incidents and injuries: Wait a minute: do I mean that employees should be recognized for reporting injuries? That's right. If employees report injuries immediately, they not only minimize the physical/psychological impact of the injury on themselves, they reduce the direct/indirect accident costs to the company. Both the individual and the company win if the employee reports injuries immediately.

4. What is the best strategy to ensure your recognition is most effective?

a. Recognition is criterion-based - create many winners
b. Recognition is merit-based - create one winner
c. Recognition is universal - everyone wins
d. Recognition is withheld - only good employees win


Never ignore good performance!
(Click to enlarge)

Have you ever been ignored for safety performance or achievement that you believe should be recognized? It doesn't really matter why you have been ignored: you don't like it.

Ignoring employee performance is a response and actually a common form of recognition. You might think that ignoring employee behaviors is actually withholding a consequence, but it's not, because there is no such thing as "no consequence, every response, including ignoring, is a consequence. In fact, ignoring desired behaviors in the workplace is worst response you can have because it leads to the extinction (elimination) of desired behaviors.

Let's take a look at some of the characteristics of extinction:

  • It is the withdrawal of recognition;
  • Workers eventually perform without an expectation of recognition.
  • Ignoring may affect behaviors such that:
    • if workers comply with safety rules and the supervisor ignores it, they may perceive it as a negative consequence. Consequently, they may more likely break safety rules in the future; and
    • if workers break safety rules and a supervisor ignores it, they may perceive it as a positive consequence. Consequently, they may be less likely to comply with safety rules in the future.
  • It is the most common form of consequence in the workplace - It's epidemic in organizations.
  • Examples of the thoughts and beliefs produced when people are ignored include:
    • "It doesn't matter how hard I work around here."
    • "Apathy is rampant, but who cares."

5. What is the worst thing you could do, as a supervisor, in response to an observed unsafe behavior?

a. Punish the worker
b. Encourage the worker to be safe
c. Immediately yell at the worker to stop
d. Ignore the worker's behavior

Element 5: Appropriate Application of Consequences

Without the expectation of consequences, accountability has no credibility and will not be effective. In other words, no consequences - no accountability. Consequences need to be appropriate as well as effective. This is the element with which everyone is probably most familiar. Unfortunately, in some companies, consequences are either not appropriate, not effective, or both.

Criteria for Appropriate Consequences

  • They are justified.
  • They correspond to the degree of positive or negative results of the behavior.
  • They are applied consistently throughout the entire organization.

Justified Consequences

Negative consequences are justified when the person administering discipline has fulfilled their own accountabilities first. Positive consequences are justified any time employees meet or exceed expectations. Here's an important principle (I call it the 5-R principle):

The more Regularly you Recognize and Reward, the more Rarely you'll have to Reprimand.

6. What must occur FIRST for supervisors to be justified in disciplining for unsafe performance?

a. Supervisors must prove they are right
b. Supervisors must fulfill their own accountabilities
c. Supervisors must show the employee did not use common sense
d. Supervisors must indicate intent on the part of the employee

"Five Stars" Leadership is the Key

A good way to remember your obligations.
(Click to enlarge)

It's critical to understand that before administering progressive discipline, managers and supervisors exercise real leadership when they first ask five important questions to how well they have fulfilled their own obligations to employees. Doing this is important to make sure they are actually justified in administering corrective actions. The negative impact on the company if employees are disciplined inappropriately can be dramatic over time.

The good news is that determining if discipline is appropriate doesn't have to be difficult. When conducting a self-evaluation, managers and supervisors can use the " STARS" acronym to the right to help them remember their five basic safety obligations to employees. Let's take a look at each of the five obligations:

  1. Supervision: By definition, adequate supervision means "detecting and correcting hazards or unsafe behavior before they cause an injury or illness." If supervisors are stuck in the office all day, it's not possible to oversee the work employees are doing. Lack of supervision is a major reason disciplining employees after an accident is usually inappropriate. Managers and supervisors should ask, "Did I catch them violating safety rules before they got hurt?"
  2. Training: Employees must be provided with the required knowledge and gain the skills to comply with safety requirements. Employees, then, have the necessary knowledge and skills to understand the natural and system consequences of noncompliance. Managers and supervisors should ask, "Have I provided (or has the employee received) quality safety training?"
  3. Accountability: Do employees believe they will be disciplined if they're caught violating safety rules? Or, do they know that all you will do is shake your finger and threaten them without following through. If supervisors allow employees to violate safety rules, all justification for discipline disappears. Managers and supervisors should ask, "Have I applied safety accountability fairly and consistently in the past?"
  4. Resources: Do employees have the physical resources and psychosocial support to comply with safety requirements? Supervisors need to provide adequate tools, equipment, materials that make it possible for employees to work safely.
  5. Support: Supervisors should also manage workloads, schedules, employee relations so that the workplace is as stress-free as possible. When the employee believes working fast is more important than working safe, supervisors are failing in this area. Managers and supervisors should ask, "Have I provided the employee with a safe and healthful workplace?"

If managers and supervisors can honestly answer "YES" to each of the above five questions, it may be appropriate to administer discipline because the five basic leadership obligations have been fulfilled. However, if they cannot honestly answer "yes" to each question, then an apology would be in order, and a promise to make personal and system improvements (provider better training, resources, expectations of enforcement, supervision and leadership).

7. If a new employee is caught, during his first day at work, wearing the wrong type of PPE while performing a hazardous task, which of the following supervisor accountabilities is least likely to have been fulfilled?

a. Adequate psychosocial support
b. Adequate supervision
c. Adequate physical resources
d. Adequate PPE training.

Consequences (Continued)

How Severity and Responsibility Affect Consequences

Now this could be severe!
(Click to enlarge)
  • Severity: Consequences should increase with the severity of the potential injury or illness that might result from the behavior. If an employee is performing an unsafe work practice that could result in a fatal injury to himself or another employee, that certainly warrants a severe consequence. On the other hand, an employee who performs a behavior that violates a safety rule, yet will not result in an injury or illness, a less severe consequence is more appropriate.
  • Responsibility: Consequences should increase with the level of responsibility of the person performing the behavior. If an employee neglects to perform a safe work practice such as wearing ear protection, a safety rule has been violated and discipline may be in order. However, if a supervisor or manager neglects to wear ear protection, we're not just talking about violating a safety rule. That safety rule has, in effect, been legally transformed from a mandatory requirement into a discretionary guideline. Consequently, as a guideline, it is not legally auditable or enforceable.

In the examples above, a more severe level of discipline would be in order for the supervisor because the supervisor, in effect, gives permission for all employees to violate the safety rules. Consequently, the negative impact on the safety of employees has the potential to be much greater when the supervisor violates a safety rule.

On the other hand, if a supervisor or manager does something positive, the net impact will likely be greater than that of one of his or her employees. Consequently, more significant positive consequences would certainly be appropriate.

Consistent Application of Consequences

  • Consequences are applied consistently at all levels of the organization.

To build a high level of trust between management and labor, accountability must be applied consistently at all levels of the organization: up and down, and across functions. Every supervisor and manager must be held accountable in the same fair manner consistent with employees. If labor perceives the accountability system as applying only to them, they will naturally consider it unfair: the primary failure mode for accountability systems.

8. What occurs when a supervisor ignores an employee who fails to follow fall protection rules when required?

a. The mandatory rule becomes discretionary guideline.
b. The supervisor becomes the agent of the employer.
c. OSHA may not cite the employee for violations.
d. Top management criminally cited by OSHA.

Element 6: Continuous Evaluation of the Accountability System

Continually evaluate to continually improve.
(Click to enlarge)

Evaluation of the accountability system, as with all systems, should be a continuous process. Although, as a supervisor, you may not be responsible for formally evaluating the accountability system, it's good to know that someone is. Usually, the safety coordinator and safety committee are involved in this activity. In some "state-plan" states, like Oregon, the safety committee is required by law to conduct an evaluation of the employer's accountability system.

The process usually involves three levels of activity:

  • Identification: Inspect the accountability system policies, plans, procedures, processes to identify what exists.
  • Analysis: Dissect and thoroughly study each accountability system policy, plan, procedure, process to understand what they look like.
  • Evaluation: Compare and contrast each accountability system policy, plan, procedure, and process against benchmarks and best practices to judge their effectiveness.

Evaluating for Accountability

OSHA looks primarily for two program elements when evaluating an employer for accountability: Policy and consequences. OSHA does not mandate or require specific recognition/disciplinary procedures: That's the responsibility of the employer. But, an effective accountability policy that is written and communicated should be in place. Make sure your company has a written policy that addresses accountability, including the three key components.

  • specific performance expectations
  • who is accountable - both management and employee
  • appropriate consequences such as progressive discipline

If you believe there are weaknesses in your employer's accountability system, make sure to take notes on the behaviors and conditions you see in the workplace that may be pointing to accountability system policies, plans, processes, and procedures that are inadequate or missing.

9. When should evaluation of the Safety Accountability Program occur?

a. At least annually
b. After a serious accident
c. Continuously
d. As needed

Check your Work

Click on the "Check Quiz Answers" button to grade your quiz and see your score. You will receive a message if you forgot to answer one of the questions. After clicking the button, the questions you missed will be listed below. You can correct any missed questions and check your answers again.


Optional Video

One of our favorite speakers, Kevin Burns talks about how safety leaders define responsibility and accountability. Kevin Burns is a management consultant, safety speaker and author of "PeopleWork: The Human Touch in Workplace Safety."

OSHAcademy Ultimate Guide Banner Ad