promoting safety compliance: the drawbacks of a three-strike policy

Promoting Safety Culture Through Positive Reinforcement

“We’re having too many incidents. We need to crack down and do a better job promoting safety culture. We’re going to implement a three-strike policy and start including safety incidents in our annual review process. I talked to Organization X yesterday, and that’s how they lowered their incident rate.”

How many of you have heard something similar to this? When you do, what’s your typical reaction?



Reluctant acceptance?

For me, this is a flashing red light that says “DANGER”.

Why Is This My Reaction?

We can all agree that having too many incidents is a significant concern, but in my experience, implementing a penalty system is an unproductive means of promoting safety culture.

Employees are far less likely to ask questions and voice concerns if they fear retribution. In extreme cases, employees may avoid reporting incidents and accidents altogether, even those that result in damage or injury.

Additionally, penalty systems raise stress and tension in the workplace. High stress leads to fatigue, difficulty concentrating, headaches, irritability, and other conditions that reduce productivity and increase incident rates.

In this case, I understand why it would be appealing to follow the guidance of Organization X, but I’m skeptical about the conclusion drawn from their data. That’s because it’s very possible their “lower incident rate” is due to decreased reporting (due to fear of penalty), rather than an actual reduction in overall incidents. As discussed in our March 20th post, using reported incidents to gauge safety program success is often misleading. This is especially true when there’s a real or perceived penalty associated with the program.

With these concepts in mind, let’s reassess the original comments.

“We’re having too many incidents. We need to crack down.”

To me, this says a couple of important things about the organization. Importantly, they care about the safety program and want to improve. Unfortunately, they are skipping a few important steps between identifying the problem and developing a solution.

A Better Approach to Promoting Safety Culture

As a first step, it’s important to understand the underlying issue(s). In this case, I would recommend opening the doors of communication and discussing the issue in a low-pressure environment. For instance, a safety committee or group meeting would be a good initial forum.

Starting with a simple acknowledgement like, “We’ve had a lot of incidents recently. Do we know why that is?”, can promote a very fruitful discussion about the safety program and controls.

The assumption in the original conversation is that the incidents are solely due to employee misconduct and/or negligence and could have been prevented by the threat of penalty. While this may be true in select cases (e.g. failure to wear PPE or horseplay), there are several root causes that are independent of employee behavior.

A few of the most common include:

  1. Improper controls
  2. Inadequate or malfunctioning equipment
  3. Insufficient policies and procedures
  4. Poor or improper training
  5. Environmental factors
  6. Etc.

All of these factors should be considered and assessed during a thorough program review before making assumptions or developing solutions. It’s very likely that new equipment, more specific procedures, or improved training would be a better response.

The Exception: When Violations Warrant Consequence

To be clear, I am not saying that your safety program should be completely without negative consequence, especially if employees are knowingly or willfully violating safety policies. Gross or routine examples of non-compliance (e.g., refusal to wear PPE, horseplay, or repeated failure to follow established SOPs) put the organization and other employees at risk and should be taken very seriously. The organization needs to make it clear from Day 1 that there’s zero tolerance for these types of actions.

That said, I am suggesting that you reconsider negative consequences for true accidents and incidents. Accidents happen, even in the safest and most vigilant workplaces. In these cases, proper response and prompt medical attention is critically important. Fear of penalty can get in the way of appropriate response and reporting measures, and thus reduce safety in the long run.

Alternate Strategy: Positive Reinforcement and Consistent Oversight

Safety programs with blanket penalty systems for all incidents tend to be shortsighted. As an alternative, you may want to consider positive reinforcement or (small!) reward programs for information sharing and appropriate incident response. Small rewards for strong safety records or satisfactory inspections can go a long way toward improving the safety program and boosting  morale. In my experience, the peer pressure associated with jeopardizing a group reward can be more effective than any penalty system. Positive reinforcement strategies also come with the added benefit of protecting the safety team from the dreaded “safety cop” label. This allows for more consistent oversight and improves communication about safety and workplace processes.


If you would like to discuss strategies for promoting safety culture at your organization, contact us at or to schedule a free consultation and information session.


Photo Credit: – KeithJJ