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Why Discipline Is Important In Effective Training

The Ugly Truth: Discipline Backs Up Training

I don't know about you, but I've dealt with training experienced employees and new employees. While I still do this, approaching 9 years in managing occupational health and safety, I probably had the most exposure to training closer to the beginning of my professional career. I managed safety at a facility first.

I usually had a harder time with experienced employees regardless of their individual temperaments. They were part of a culture that the company is trying to break and change for the better. But old habits can die hard. So, sometimes discipline is important in making sure that the training is obeyed. That's understandable. I found that for some employees, the threat of losing their job was greater than the threat of losing a finger. I don't understand that, but you generally go with what works.

A Hopeful Reduction in Discipline: New Employees

Now, I figured that I had a chance to start new employees out on the right path from day one. I had hoped that there would be less need for discipline. But, I found that to not always be the case.

Incidents and their investigations can be eye opening in finding out about problems and getting to the root of them. I found that some of the new employees had adopted the not so good practices of some of the employees who had been there a while. Even after they had been trained. It turned out that regardless of training, the actual practices of the more experienced workers were what had the most long term effect. I wondered why.

As I did my own observations and talked with employees and managers, I found that the more experienced employees, who were still under the culture of produce, produce, produce, did things in part because that's what they knew. Additionally, they kept their practices because that's what was still pushed in one way or another. Furthermore, there often were little to no consequences to an employee for not following safety rules and training. This made me turn to our incident record and get management to look at some of the costs to the operation in both people and equipment.

This showed how much it was really costing us to have employees not follow their training and the safety policies, programs, and procedures. So, there was a bit more of a push towards making employees follow the rules. There were improvements, but then there seemed to be more fear from the employees. So, I looked into things more. What I found was that the reason some of the rules weren't followed were because the employees didn't have what they needed to follow it and meet the demands of production. This struck a nerve with me, so I started looking for ways to change that for the better.

Set People Up For Success

This may seem obvious. However, my experience has been that this is one of those "easier said than done" situations. There exist a hierarchy of controls to tackle hazards in the workplace. In order of first to last, they are: elimination of the hazard, substitution of the hazard with a lesser one, protect against the hazard with engineering controls, control the hazard administratively (policies/procedures), and use personal protective equipment (PPE).

How Some Companies Tackle Controlling Hazards

Unfortunately, there are companies who don't pay enough attention to the elimination, substitution, and engineering control portions. Instead, they elect to go with administrative and PPE controls. The problem with this approach is that it requires more things for employees to do than does designing the work area or process to be safe on its own.

I've found that employees often have plenty on their plate just to effectively accomplish production goals. Adding additional rules, regulations, etc. makes things more difficult and can increase the odds that the work will not be done compliantly or safely. Some may disagree with this, so I will give an example directly from my experience in manufacturing.

Employees Are Often Legitimately Busy, However...

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to be the primary safety manager for a new facility. One day, the facility was was conducting a clean-up (not using regulatory definitions). When I was doing a walk through, I noticed that there were some waste containers that were not labeled as required. We had done training on this relatively recently, and I got with facility management. The problem was taken care of, but we though it would be good to have a little meeting on it and other things that management needed to discuss with the employees.

I got the chance to periodically check in on the employees and see their progress. They were in fact keeping very busy. However, near the end of their shift, several of them were together talking near a piece of equipment. I decided to go talk with them so I could get to know them better and to learn a bit more about their process. This went on for around 20 minutes or so. Then, facility management and I had the meeting we planned.

I was allowed to start, and I talked about the issue I found with the waste containers. The first thing one of the employees said was that they had been extremely busy all day. I said that from what I saw, that was mostly true. It was maybe around 80 to 90 % true. I then mimed out how easy and quick it was to put a label on when they got a container.

They conceded that it wasn't hard to do nor did it take long to do. I also pointed out that the last 20 or so minutes we had been talking. Any one of them could have gone to check the containers to make sure they were right since we were near them. This is especially true considering they saw the safety manager coming. If they saw the problem, they could have got the rest of the workers to help fix the problem with the labels. But that didn't happen. The employees saw that while they were indeed busy, they had not managed their time as effectively as they could. We used it as a learning experience.


The example provided should show at least two things. The first is that employees are often quite busy just doing their jobs effectively. The second is that they may not utilize their time as well as they can. The point is to show the issue that can result if you try to get employees to do more than they are used to or can feasibly do. It's possible to pile on so many safety related rules and requirements that either production suffers or safety and compliance suffer.

I will be the first to admit that the elimination and substitution steps may be infeasible for some processes and companies. But engineering controls (safe design) can make it so that just doing the normal production portion of a job is inherently safe. This requires less on the employees in the form of procedures to follow, PPE to use, and training. This can significantly improve productivity by needing less time dedicated to training, incident investigation, and PPE inspection and maintenance.

If safety is designed into the process and equipment, there are less behaviors to change and less need to implement discipline. The thing about discipline is even when it is truly warranted, it can be a hard thing on the company. That employee may have quite a bit of useful knowledge and experience. It may not be so easy to replace who and what was lost.

On the flip side, for some employees, the threat of losing their job is more of a concern than losing a limb... unless they actually lose the limb. If safety is designed into the system, there is likely less need for discipline. The company can protect the valuable human and equipment resources it needs to get the job done effectively. Remember to set people up for success, design safety into a process, and use discipline when truly warranted.

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