Toolbox Talks: 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 and working with animals. 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 this discomfort go away.

Or 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. This takes a little longer because we need to wait for the rat to want the benefit.

So let me ask you, in our research, 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.

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. Discipline is quicker, but it also creates 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.

Toolbox Talks offers quick insights and thoughts to use for your toolbox (tailboard) talks. Dave Sowers is a founding member of Knowledge Vine, a veteran-owned human performance training and consulting organization that strives to reduce the frequency and severity of human errors in the workplace. He has almost 30 years of experience in power generation and the utility industry. He is a veteran of U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Program and holds a bachelor’s degree in resources management and a master’s degree in both management and emergency management and homeland security.