Research Insights

Positive Reinforcement

Many employers successfully use positive reinforcement programs to improve safety. Such programs provide workers with continuing positive feedback, usually in the form of graphical performance reports and supervisory support, to shape the workers’ safety related behavior.

Researchers introduced one program, in a wholesale bakery. An analysis of the safety related conditions in the plant before the study suggested areas that needed improvement. For example, new hires received no formal safety training, and managers rarely mentioned safety.

The new safety program included training and positive reinforcement. The researchers set and communicated a reasonable safety goal (in terms of observed incidents performed safely). Next, employees participated in a 30 minute training session, by viewing pairs of slides depicting scenes that the researchers staged in the plant. One slide for example showed the supervisor climbing over a conveyor the parallel slide showed to supervisor walking around the conveyor. After viewing an unsafe act, employees had to describe what was wrong (what’s unsafe here?) Then, the researchers demonstrated the same incident again but performed in a safe manner, and explicitly stated the safe conduct rule (go around not over or under conveyors).

At the conclusion of the training phase, supervisors showed employees a graph with their pertaining safety record (in terms of observed incidents performed safely) plotted. Supervisors then encouraged workers to consider increasing their performance to the new safety goal for their own protection to decrease costs, and to help the plant get out of a new safety goal for their own protection, to decrease costs, and to help the plant get out of its last place in safety ranking. Then the researchers posted the graph and a list of safety rules.

Whenever observers walked through the plant collecting safety data, they posted on the graph the percentage of incidents they had seen performed safely by the group as a whole, thus providing the worker with positive feedback. Workers could compare their current safety performance with both their previous performers and their assigned goal. In addition, supervisors praised workers when they performed selected incidents safely. Safety in the plant subsequently improved markedly.

Use behavior based safety

Behavior based safety means identifying the workers behaviors that combine to accidents and then training workers to avoid these behaviors. For example, Tenneco Corporation (which manufactures automobile exhaust systems and Monroe brand suspensions) implemented a behavior based safety program at its 70 manufacturing sites in 20 countries. The firm selected internal consultants for among its quality managers, training manager’s engineers, and production workers. After training the internal consultants identified five critical behaviors for Tenneco’s first safety program such as: Eyes on task; Does the employee watch his or her hands while performing a task? The consultants made observations, collected data regarding the behaviors, and then successfully instituted on site training program to get employees to perform these five behaviors properly.

Use employee participation

There are two good reasons to get the employees involved in designing the safety program. First, employees are often management’s best source of ideas about what the potential problems are and how to solve them. Second, employee involvement tends to encourage employees to accept the safety program.

For example, when the international Truck and Engine Corp. began designing its new robot based plant in Springfield, Ohio management chose to involve employees in designing the facility.

Employee participation took several forms. Management appointed joint labor management safety teams for each department. Several years before the equipment was to arrive, project engineers began speaking with safety teams to start designing safeguards for the robot equipment. The company sent one safety team, including the union safety chairman to Japan to watch the robot machines in action, and to develop a checklist of items that the safety teams needed to address. Then back to Ohio, members of this team worked with employees to identify possible hazards and to develop new devices such as color coded locks to better protect the employees.

Once they are committed to the idea of safety a checklist can provide employers with a useful reminder of what to watch out for.

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