Balancing Positive and Negative Reinforcement in Safety Management
By David Tan K.P., SD International, Dec 2005
There should be a balance between punishing (negative reinforcement) and nurturing (positive
reinforcement). The methodology adopted in behavioural safety is that there is no point nurturing a
person who repeatedly ignores rules and regulations. Such violators should be eliminated if there is no
other choice. During a presentation in SD International conference, Singapore, August 2007, I goes on
to say that ‘error’ unsafe act should be nurtured and resolve as fast as reasonably practicable before it is
being repeated whereas ‘violation’ unsafe act should be punished to stop further violation unsafe
practices, otherwise the whole safety management system would be disrupted and that employees
might thought that because of the behavioural safety program, individuals who committed unsafe
practices will not be punished.
To justify the philosophy of ‘punishing-violators’ and ‘nurturing-errors’, an observation was conducted
from 28 February 2005 to 1 April 2005 lead by SD International to find the behaviour of pedestrians
when crossing roads in our small country of Singapore and why some pedestrians refused to employ
the overhead bridge and whether the local authorities took appropriate action to these pedestrian who
disregards their lives.
The result of this observation has discovered the justification about why balancing positive (punishing-
violators) and negative (nurturing-errors) reinforcement is essential to the in-house rules and
regulations under any safety and health management system.
too far. I have to
climb up the
stairs! Can I
Figure 4.3.1. “Overhead bridge too far. I have to climb up the stairs! Can I cross?”
Figure 4.3.1 illustrated the thoughts of a pedestrian whether the pedestrian would want to take a
shortcut by crossing the road without using the overhead bridge.
@ 2007. David Tan. SD International, No. 1 Pearl Bank, Singapore Page 1 of 6
Figure 4.3.2. Don’t care! Saves time!
On the first day of observation, the taskforce observed 12 pedestrians crossing the road on one of the
busiest road of Singapore without employing the overhead bridge within the span of 10 minutes during
the busy lunch hour. During this observation, interviews were conducted and majority of these
pedestrians said that by taking the shortcut, it saves them time and they do not have to drag their feet to
the tiring stairs of the overhead bridge.
Oh no! They
Figure 4.3.3. Oh no! They put a barrier!
To put a scenario in such a manner that can block the mindset of pedestrians taking the at-risk
behaviours, the taskforce went to another busy road where there is a barrier in the middle of the road as
shown in figure 4.3.3. This time, the taskforce observed whether any kind of shortcuts that can be taken
by pedestrians with such a condition.
@ 2007. David Tan. SD International, No. 1 Pearl Bank, Singapore Page 2 of 6
Figure 4.3.4. Jump over the barrier! Saves time!
After some twenty minutes of observation, two pedestrians took the shortcut and crossed the road by
jumping over the barrier. (See figure 4.3.4) An interview was then conducted, one of the pedestrians
said that the shortcut saves him time and he does not have to climb up the tiring stairs of the overhead
bridge. He added that he was young and has the ability to jump over the barrier without hurting
himself. Another pedestrian declined the interview.
Escalator installed at
overhead bridge! No
need to climb stairs.
But, should I cross
Figure 4.3.5. Escalator installed at overhead bridge! No need to climb stairs. But, should I cross the road?
To trigger a scenario mindset such that task of using the overhead bridge are made easier for
pedestrians, the taskforce went to another location where there is a barrier and an escalator as shown in
figure 4.3.5. This time the taskforce observe whether any more shortcuts that can be taken by
@ 2007. David Tan. SD International, No. 1 Pearl Bank, Singapore Page 3 of 6
Don’t care! Jump
over the barrier!
Figure 4.3.6. Don’t care! Jump over the barrier! Saves time!
It took approximately one hour 15 minutes to capture a pedestrian crossing the road by jumping over
the barrier. (See figure 4.3.6) The taskforce attempted an interview with the pedestrian but was then
Signboard says fine
Should I cross the
road or use the
Figure 4.3.7. Prominent signage indicating the consequence of not using overhead bridge
The taskforce then went on to put a prominent signage that says, “Fine $50, No Crossing, Use The
Bridge” to trigger the mindset of pedestrians as shown in figure 4.3.7 with the permission of the local
@ 2007. David Tan. SD International, No. 1 Pearl Bank, Singapore Page 4 of 6
Don’t care! Won’t
get caught! No
one is looking.
Figure 4.3.8. Pedestrian took shortcut and discreetly cross the road by jumping over
the barrier even with a warning signage
This time, it took approximately 49 hours 12 minutes to capture a pedestrian discreetly jumped over the
barrier. An attempted interview with the pedestrian was rejected as he ran away quickly.
In view of the above observation, the taskforce suggested that if the pedestrian is one of an
organisation’s shop floor personnel and that the organisation have in due diligent, put the right working
conditions, environment and procedures including training and refresher training, what can the
management of the company do to the shop floor personnel but to punish the worker for violating the
rules and regulations.
The concept of ‘punishing-violators’ and ‘nurturing-errors’ should be adopted in behavioural safety
approaches. There should be no doubt that many organisations do experienced violation unsafe
practices at site. One of the most ridiculous safety violations cited is the smoking of cigarettes at
ethylene oxide plant and that the organisation (not to be named) recorded an outstanding 7 occasions in
the year of 2006 alone. This was despite many campaigns launch and several nurturing programmes
given to all levels not to violate the smoking policy. It was then lead with no choice at one point of
time in the beginning of year 2007 but to terminate a shop floor personnel from the workforce who has
repeatedly defied the smoking policy by smoking cigarette at one of the most hazardous reactors within
the ethylene oxide plant. After the termination and broadcasting the matter to the whole organisation,
there was no incident recorded for smoking cigarette at the site from the day of the termination until till
Another incident is that one of the line managers obstinate and refused to install a fixed working
platform for the safe access and egress despite several reminders from the safety and health manager
including the busy outstation managing director that it would be very risky for any shop floor personnel
@ 2007. David Tan. SD International, No. 1 Pearl Bank, Singapore Page 5 of 6
if they needed to gain the access to fix choked solenoid valves during ad hoc occasions without a
working platform. As a result, a technician eventually fell and broke his right arm. The line manager
was then dismissed after thorough investigation and consideration from the top management.
From these incidents, the organisation recognised the importance of methodology on balancing
‘punishing-violators’ and ‘nurturing-errors’ so that in-house safety rules and regulations in the safety
management system are abided. The smoking at ethylene oxide plant case is known as direct unsafe
violation practice while the line manager’s case is an indirect unsafe violation practice, which has
caused another victim to suffer. Direct or indirect unsafe violation practices shall be equally punished
because it contributed heavy losses to the company.
On the other hand, management also recognised that certain at-risk behaviours lead to accident or near
miss can also be caused by direct or indirect error unsafe practices, and such cases have to be nurtured,
resolved and rectified immediately to avoid repeated errors unsafe practices. Repeated error is violation
if not resolve in due diligent.
The definition of ‘error’ unsafe act and ‘violation’ unsafe act is very important for the success of any
@ 2007. David Tan. SD International, No. 1 Pearl Bank, Singapore Page 6 of 6