Why a Punishment-Based Approach to Safety Management is Holding Your Team Back

Aug 31, 2018

When thinking about how to improve your workplace health and safety, one of the most common management styles is to go with the “stick” approach. That is, to focus on punishing your team members when they break safety protocols with the aim of minimising unsafe behaviours. From seemingly harmless incidents such as calling them out publicly to serious enforcement measures such as formal warnings and terminations, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that punishing your team for non-compliance will actually motivate them to adhere to your organisation’s safety procedures.

However, when you look at the data, it’s glaringly clear that a punishment-based approach to safety compliance has the opposite effect. In fact, our recent study into the prevalence of underreporting across 9 major industries with over 12,460 participants found that 37% of participants chose not to report a safety hazard because of that very same fear of negative repercussions. Instead of motivating your team to report potential safety issues, a punishment-based approach just leads to the mindset of “If I can hide it, I will”.

This has a detrimental impact on your workplace safety by robbing your organisation of countless opportunities to minimise the possibility of a major incident occurring. Without changing your approach to safety management, you also run the risk of developing a Public Compliance safety culture where safety protocols are followed impeccably when workers are being watched, yet completely dismissed when they aren’t under surveillance.

That means increased workplace risks for your team and the potential for dire legal and financial repercussions for your organisation.

So, what is it about punishment that leads to such inverse results? Well, let’s take a look at what’s happening behind the scenes.

Why Punishment Doesn’t Work

You see, the result that we’re trying to accomplish from repeated use of punishment leads back to a psychological concept known as ‘operant conditioning’ (Skinner, 1948). Operant conditioning is a type of behavioural conditioning where repeated use of either positive reinforcement or punishment is used to influence the likelihood of someone repeating a given behaviour.

In the context of workplace safety, it leads back to the assumption that punishing a staff member for breaching safety protocols will cause to them to behave in a safer manner. The problem is that while punishment will cause a change in their behaviour, it won’t be in the direction that you’re aiming for.

Instead of motivating your workers to behave safely when a safety issue arises, punishment simply motivates them to avoid the trigger that led to that punishment. In this case, the trigger is their choice to report the safety issue.

In your team’s mind, instead of being conditioned to behave safely, they’re actually being conditioned to hide safety issues from management because the choice to make a safety report is becoming linked in their minds to the punishment they’ve been receiving. Once again, this is a key precursor for the development of a Public Compliance level of safety culture with a team that’s motivated to follow safety protocol when they’re under supervision and completely disregarding the need for it when they aren’t being watched.

This also stems back to our brain’s biological programming which consists of an inbuilt system of motivation. This hardwired system subconsciously motivates us towards things that lead to pleasure and away from anything that’s perceived to be a threat.

Your Brain’s Motivation System

Also known as the ‘reward and threat’ systems, our brains developed these sets of neural networks to ensure our survival by motivating us towards food and shelter and away from dangerous or unsafe situations. In today’s world, the risks and dangers aren’t of the same calibre that they used to be, but the systems of motivation have stayed the same. They still motivate us towards pleasure and away from discomfort and pain.

The problem is that while we think that punishment will motivate a worker to behave safely, it actually just triggers their internal threat system by associating a fear of negative repercussions with the very act of reporting. Beyond that, Kim and colleagues (2006) have shown that the successful avoidance of punishment activates the brain’s reward circuitry. That means that not only are they associating a sense of pain to the act of reporting, they’re now subconsciously feeling a sense of reward every time they get away with it, further exacerbating the problem.

That’s because at its core, punishment is designed to stop, not to start new behaviours. So if you want to take your safety results from average to excellent, you need to start associating positive experiences with the act of safety reporting.

Don’t Shoot The Messenger

The best approach to minimise underreporting is to shift your focus away from enforcing policies on employees who place safety reports and towards positively reinforcing their choice to report. Instead of inducing a sense of fear upon reporting a safety hazard, you’ll start motivating your team to report future safety issues with the anticipation of a positive outcome insteadSome initiatives to create positive associations with safety reporting include:

  • Use social recognition or positive feedback processes to reward individuals who report near-misses or minor incidents that led to improved safety outcomes.
  • Create formal processes to recognise and actively share statistics on how previous incident reports have led to direct improvements in workplace safety within your organisation.
  • Implement educational sessions to teach workers about the importance of their individual contributions to overall safety, inducing a sense of shared duty and internal motivation to take personal ownership over their wellbeing.
  • If strict punishment is enforced immediately following a safety report, ensure that other workers are debriefed and educated about why the punishment was necessary to minimise any false assumptions about the circumstances involved.

As you can see, while punishment seems like an obvious solution, it’ll only lead to a culture of cover-ups and underreporting. The real enemy here is the cause of the risk, not the employee reporting it. So instead of a punishment-based approach to safety compliance, utilising positive reinforcement to associate a sense of accomplishment and reward to the very act of safety reporting will help you elevate your organisation’s safety culture maturity by shifting the perspective within your team from “I report because I have to” to “I report because I want to”.


  1. Kim, H., Shimojo, S., & O’Doherty, J. P. (2006) Is Avoiding an Aversive Outcome Rewarding? Neural Substrates of Avoidance Learning in the Human Brain. PLoS Biology, 4(8), e233.
  2. Skinner, B. F. (1948) Superstition’ in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.

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