Iron fist in velvet glove

file0001768912771Many companies and consultants selling Occupational Health and Safety systems and culture believe in what they call “the iron fist in the velvet glove” approach to safety. The “iron fist” is based on the premise of four strikes and you’re out. Four safety indiscretions and the punishment is dismissal. After the first offence a commitment is gained from the employee not to digress again in the future. Catch the person again and a written warning is issued. Another indiscretion and the final warning is issued. Then with the fourth indiscretion: dismissal. Some safety professionals and managers state ‘it sends a strong message to other employees’ or ‘nothing like banging someone to the cross outside the city walls to show the next person what happens when you upset the Romans’.

When it comes to safety culture – what are considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviours in relation to safety – there are two types of safety culture: overt safety culture and covert safety culture.

Overt safety culture is determined by the company, it is what behaviour the company expects from its personnel. It is based on the company’s procedures and systems and people learn the processes via training and induction programs. Companies with good overt safety culture have robust safety systems and procedures, committed supervision and excellent training programs.

Covert culture, however, is learned on the job from what people see around them. It is learned from the actions of other people, supervisors and managers. It is driven by a lack of positive disciplines and reinforced by negative responses of supervisors and managers who do not positively address unacceptable behaviours and conditions.

The use of dismissal as a safety tool not only punishes the employee but also the family of that employee. It sends the wrong message not a strong message. And the use of punitive measures to enforce safety rules and procedures creates and encourages covert culture within organisations. If a person has had three strikes and has another near miss, are they going to report it? The answer is quite simply no. Fear of dismissal will ensure the non-reporting of that near miss; a near miss that may contribute to the next fatal incident. And if a Plant Manager has one lost time injury and has the misfortune of a second, what is he/she going to do? They are going to attempt to hide the LTI or not count the LTI. This only adds to the company’s covert culture and sends a message to employees that covert culture is OK.

Fear of punishment or dismissal creates covert culture. This is the self-perpetuating cycle of covert culture. In covert cultures, important root causes are not addressed or shared to prevent serious injury or fatal incidents.

The “velvet glove” on the other hand (excuse the pun) is where one encourages safe behaviour by the use of reward schemes, regular auditing and congratulations to employees, and of course along the way we find fault and use the iron fist! Confusing isn’t it? It sends mixed messages and also creates mistrust of management who on one hand are punishing and on the other rewarding. Consistency and positivity is a great leadership and management trait.

It is impossible for a company that uses the iron fist in the velvet glove approach to reach the desired OHS culture and that company will tend to plateau statistically or have very few lost time injuries but still have fatal incidents. The OHS culture will remain very much covert.

A utopian safety culture would be one where there is full consultation between management and employees; one where employees felt comfortable enough to report all incidents and near misses. All incidents and near misses would be investigated; the root causes identified and permanent corrective actions implemented. Employees, Health and Safety Representatives and Union Officials would be at ease in approaching Management regarding any safety issue.

While we may agree that a utopian safety culture is what we all want, the iron fist in the velvet glove paradigm has so far been unable to take us there. In fact, our current methods have rather perpetuated the problem, than provided a solution. We need a new safety paradigm. But dare we think differently? Can we drop current methods and start trying something new?


  1. mervynsher Reply

    Interesting article Kim.

    I note that the tone throughout the article is one of avoiding anything perceived to be harsh from a management of risk perspective, and recommending positive priming and rewards. Is this in itself not confusing?

    Your rendition of the Utopian level of a safety society fails to include the single most important aspect of any human behaviour, which is learning. You’ve mentioned training earlier in the article, but nowhere have you mentioned the individual learning.

    A Utopian level of safety is an aberration in itself, for it signifies an end to all development on the assumption that you have achieved the ultimate level. This flies in the face of human behaviour, which requires continual development, assessment, testing, trying, risking, etc., particularly in the workplace. You have identified this in a simplistic way with your explanation of covert vs. overt.

    Are you not suggesting that the new paradigm that you refer to as being required is perhaps just a refinement of the existing flawed systems that prevail, with modification towards the Utopian model as the goal?

    Alternatively, how about you ignore the current status quo entirely and simply create the opportunity for everyone to learn from their workplace, to learn from their experiences, to learn how to risk safely and productively.

    Can you drop current methods and try something new?

  2. Dave Reply

    Kim, just what would you do with the goose that constantly and knowingly “breaks” the rules and threaten their own and other people’s safety? Should they just be allowed to continue their merry way until they actually kill themselves or someone else?

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