Discipline and Enforcement

Posted: Sep. 17, 2019 • By Kevin Kohler

Discipline and Enforcement

It’s their own fault if workers get hurt not following the safety rules

Actually, courts can and do find employers responsible when workers are injured, even when they have not followed safety rules. Consider the following legal case brought against a roofing contractor in Ontario, as reported by the CBC:

(A roofer) fell about six metres from a ladder at a home … He picked himself off the ground, then told his boss he wanted to go home. Seconds later he collapsed. His boss, … the owner of (the roofing company) – put (the roofer) in his car and started driving towards a hospital. But it was too late. (He) died in the back seat of internal injuries.
… A year earlier, the company had been warned by provincial authorities to enforce regulations at its job sites after an inspection revealed safety violations. Yet, on the day of the fatal workplace accident, (the roofer) was working without a proper safety line.
(The owner) was eventually fined $62,500, including victim surcharges, and … was sentenced to 15 days in jail…

Employers have a responsibility to both enforce safety rules and to be aware of when they are likely not being followed.

We can’t always be there to force people to do the right thing

Claiming that an employee did not follow the safety rules of their own free will may place the onus on you to demonstrate that the behaviour was completely unpreventable. An effective system of safety supervision, enforcement and discipline should identify those likely to behave in this manner and correct the behaviour through education.

Why weren’t workers following the rules?

This is the single most important question that we face when safety rules aren’t being followed. The rules may not be being followed because employees are given mixed signals about enforcement discipline.
So our rules, and how they are enforced, can both promote and detract from the effectiveness of our safety system, depending upon how they are applied. To simply discipline safety infractions without addressing the underlying reasons for the behaviour, may lead to the behaviour being repeated because the “root cause” has not been eliminated.

How should we enforce our safety rules?

To ensure that our safety rules promote our safety system they should be enforced in a positive manner that encourages open reporting and communication.

Safety rules and their enforcement should be:

  • Consistent, timely and apply to all employees equally with no exceptions for supervisors, visitors, “quick inspections” or for any other reason;
  • Positive and not punitive or discriminatory.  The emphasis should be on determining why workers are not following the rules and providing education rather than punishment;
  • Subject to active inspection and observation to establish how well they are being followed.  Immediate action must be taken for safety violations;
  • Communicated clearly, including the reasons for the rules.  Communication on rules and enforcement must be repeated and verified at reasonable intervals;
  • Fair, clearly stated and progressively applied so that there is an opportunity for employees to learn from any discipline that they receive;
  • Appropriate to the hazard they are intended to prevent.

Best Practices

Our rules should be enforced in a manner that encourages employees to report safety incidents so that they can be investigated, and their root causes established and eliminated. Enforcement that is primarily punitive can drive safety problems “underground” and create a culture where employees are afraid to report safety issues and incidents. Whenever possible, we should use enforcement and discipline as an opportunity to educate our employees, and promote our health and safety system.


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