How to get workers to choose safety when you aren't looking

A research professor had a group of undergraduate students who were new to the laboratory. This particular research involved the use of rats. To get the students aligned with his research methodology, he shared the following:

We want to teach the rat to push a lever. There are two ways to influence the rat to do this. We can use positive reinforcement or we can use negative reinforcement.

The quickest way is to use negative reinforcement. I can put a light electrical charge on the floor of the cage to make the rat uncomfortable. The rat will quickly learn that pushing the lever makes the electrical charge go away. This is the quickest way because the rat is uncomfortable now and will push the lever now.

We can teach the rat to push the lever with positive reinforcement but it takes a little longer. For example, we can set the lever to release a pellet of food when it is pushed. The rat will learn to push the lever to get the food. The reason it takes a little longer is we need to wait for the rat to be hungry and to decide on its own that it wants the food.

Should we use positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement?

Thinking that expediency was important, the students answered that negative reinforcement would be the better choice. The professor replied:

Let me ask you another question. In which cage do you want to put your hand? The one with the rat that has been constantly shocked or the one with the rat that’s been lazily eating food pellets all day? The rat that has been eating all day is pretty docile and content, but I can assure you, the rat we have been annoying is looking for the first chance to bite you.

So what does this have to with safety and human performance? Although we don’t work in a lab and people are more complicated than rats, the basic concept still applies: people must choose safe behaviors and are happier when the motivation is positive. The goal isn’t just quick compliance with safety rules at any cost. The ultimate goal is getting your people to decide to comply because there is a benefit for them. This benefit can be understanding the risk/reward in taking shortcuts. It can be recognition from leadership for exhibiting correct behaviors. It can be in the understanding of the benefits of certain safety rules. Influencing safe behaviors positively takes a little longer but gets lasting results.

If putting an electric charge on the floor is the equivalent of standing over a worker threatening discipline, then you only get the results you want while you are watching. As soon as you remove the influence of discomfort (no more electrical charge) then the rat will have no interest in pushing the lever. Likewise, if workers are only following the safety rules because you are watching or threatening discomfort, as soon as you quit looking the worker will likely lose interest as well.

We need to invest the time and use positive reinforcement to shape behaviors. Sure, we can go for expediency using vague threats and “taking names” to get what we want, but you know what you get with that? A workforce that is looking for the first chance to bite you (metaphorically). Help your people see the benefit in choosing safe behaviors by taking the time to teach them what is needed, show them the personal benefit in compliance, and reward/recognize them for their efforts. This is the way to get the behaviors you want and still have team that is not only compliant, but also content.