A partner's perspective: Workplace safety

14 December 2012


In the first of a new feature for this e-newsletter we invite short opinion pieces from one of our Business School partners on a “burning issue”. Senior Human Factors consultant, and occupational and environmental physician Dr Kathleen Callaghan from Z Energy talks about punishing workplace safety flouters.

Contingencies are the relationships between a behaviour and its consequences. Immediate and certain consequences change behaviour best – irrespective of whether the consequences are positive or negative.

Legal systems do not operate in a way which allows for immediate or certain consequences to be delivered. The wheels, as they say, grind slowly…which leaves us with the consequences themselves.

Changing behaviour requires three essential factors:

  1. A discriminative stimulus is a signal that a certain set of contingencies is operating (if I do this, then that will happen).
  2. Reinforcement makes behaviour more frequent. Positive reinforcement adds a reward. Negative reinforcement removes a punisher. The legal system does not “do” reinforcement.
  3. Punishment makes behaviour less frequent. It is the delivery of an adverse stimulus.

Punishment can be metered out by the law. However, to be truly punishment it must be adverse – it must create discomfort for the person being punished.

What creates discomfort for me may not create discomfort for you. Many of us know this from our attempts to punish our children – we pick our punishments for maximum effectiveness – one child gets no lollies for a week, another gets no television, for another it may be removal of a cellphone.

At present legal punishment attempts to “fit the crime” but it should also “fit the criminal”. Thus the range of adverse stimuli available must be sufficiently wide so a judge can create discomfort for whoever happens to be standing in the dock.

I’m all for widening the options of punishment available because we do need “different strokes for different folks”.