Special Topics in Safety Management

When Should Safety Managers Get Involved in Employee Discipline?

Few people enjoy disciplining employees. It’s a distasteful task. But correctly applied discipline is in the best interest of both the employee and employer, and all employees who are responsible for discipline should know how and when to discipline an employee who has violated a safety rule.

In particular, safety managers should know when to get involved in the disciplinary process. You may be reluctant to do so and wish to leave the process in the hands of your HR department—but that’s not always wise. But staying out of the disciplinary process can seriously undermine your safety efforts and cause regulatory issues for you and your organization. Here’s when you should step in.

When to Get Involved in Discipline

You should step in and discuss disciplinary action—as it relates to safety—with HR, managers, and supervisors in the following situations in particular:

  1. There is too little discipline. If enforcement in your organization consists of repeatedly telling employees to do something—yet they don’t and nothing additional happens—you don’t have an effective enforcement system. Enforcement must move employees to action when they are reticent to comply.


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  1. There is too much discipline. Some supervisors and managers take an “off with their heads” approach when it comes to safety infractions. They come down hard and fast, declaring they have “zero tolerance” for employees breaking safety rules. While their enthusiasm is well meaning, it can actually be detrimental to safety, causing employees to hide issues out of fear.
  2. Discipline is not evenly applied. This is by far the most common situation in the workplace—some employees are disciplined when safety infractions occur and some are not, depending on how the supervisor feels about the employee. Enforcement must be applied fairly across the board. Supervisors need to understand that they are not doing employees any favors when they let them thumb their noses at the rules—they are actually increasing the risk of harm to their favored employees by not properly protecting them.


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  1. Discipline stops midway. In a progressive disciplinary system, where each infraction moves an employee to the next step of the disciplinary process, enforcement often stops when the reality hits that another infraction or two could result in termination. No one wants to fire an employee, but sometimes it may be necessary for the safety of not only the employee but also other employees.

    That last step is a little easier, though, if those enforcing feel they have given an employee the proper opportunities to correct his or her behavior. To do this, you may want to include some “nontraditional” steps in your disciplinary process when it comes to safety infractions (preferably toward the beginning of the process) like retraining and safety mentoring.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at situations where poorly conceived or poorly executed discipline can create a problem for the employer.