For a while after introducing mandatory daily safety checks on all fork lift trucks, employees at Howell Pipe and Supply were pretty good about doing the inspections, said Jason Braam, human resources manager of the plumbing supply company from Georgetown, Ont. just west of Toronto.
But their diligence soon faded. The inspections became more and more sporadic, said Braam, and management grew tired of acting like baby sitters for employees who wouldn’t follow the safety guidelines.
“I was personally astonished when I found out that we were receiving resistance to the daily inspections from one of our drivers who was a previous member of our health and safety committee,” said Braam “If he wouldn’t do the inspections who would?”
Similarly, Howell Pipe has been trying to convince employees about the importance of wearing safety goggles, but is constantly running into resistance from workers who feel the goggles make them look “geeky.” Or else, they say that since they’ve never needed them before, there is no reason to start now.
“We have invested significant efforts into health and safety, on occasion only to run into employee opposition. This seems odd as the policies and processes are adapted and put into place to protect the employees who present opposition and practices,” said Braam.
To be sure, such potentially self-destructive behaviour is not a problem in the workplace alone — after all, how many of us speed, smoke, or eat unhealthy foods?
But in the workplace, employers have an obligation to stop employees from demonstrating such behaviour. And so, from time to time, they find themselves faced with the challenge of having to discipline employees for violating health and safety policies: a challenge that becomes still more complicated when unions get involved.
It seems paradoxical that, since unions purport to strive for safe work environments, they sometimes resist when employers act to discipline employees for unsafe behaviours. But the B.C. Federation of Labour claims that although in theory the idea of disciplining employees for workplace safety violations seems sound, there are numerous problems with discipline in the context of workplace safety.
For starters, the union disagrees with the idea that behaviour is solely a matter of personal responsibility. And they say that in most accidents the individual worker isn’t to blame, rather the employer should take responsibility for allowing potentially hazardous situations to exist in the first place. (See the article below for some of the keys to introducing health and safety disciplinary actions.)
At Howell Pipe, Braam said that on rare occasions they have had to discipline employees for safety violations, but he said they prefer education over discipline. If you force employees to follow a policy there is no guarantee they will actually still do it when they aren’t being watched, he explained.
“I don’t want to have to resort to (discipline). I want to have people buy into (health and safety),” he said.
“It is no good if they are doing things because they have to. Is it being done properly? You don’t know.”
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