Rewarding Safe Behavior--Without Injury Hiding
Reprinted from Industrial Safety & Hygiene News.

  Synopsis: Proper rules development eliminates injury hiding in safety incentive programs.

  I have been following the attitude versus behavior' debate in the safety industry for many years. Although I tend toward the 'attitudinal' way of thinking, I certainly admit and understand that a safe attitude may not always translate into safe behavior. And as far as behavior-based safety is concerned, 'attitudinalists' seem to be losing the battle. However, a new controversy seems to have begun to take its place - the value of safety incentive programs.

  Is their success determined by 'behavior' or 'attitude?' The "Draft OSHA Policy on Employee Incentive Programs at VPP (Voluntary Protection Program) Sites" states in part: "For example, an employer might have a system that provides cash or other prizes to employees whenever the facility goes a certain length of time without a lost-workday incident. While this is certainly an admirable goal and a cause for celebration, the program also unfortunately provides a dis-incentive for workers to report injuries and illnesses for fear of causing themselves and their fellow workers to forgo the award."

  Any facility whose safety culture tolerates non-reporting needs more help than any safety incentive program can provide. When the value of a safety award becomes greater than respect for safety, respect for health and respect for human life, that facility may wish to take a long, hard look at the message they are sending to their employees. They may also wish to re-evaluate the type of program and incentives that they are using. I recently heard of a company that promised $100 cash to all employees if they exceeded their previous record of days without a lost-time incident. Within days of attaining the record, one of the employees was injured and reported that injury. He was ostracized by his fellow employees and ended up quitting.

The issues at play

  There are two issues in this example. The first is about using cash as an incentive. If I miss out on a cash award because someone else is injured, I may see this as having that $100 somehow 'stolen' from me. One hundred dollars is a significant amount of money (to some people, at least) and employees have probably spent a lot of time imagining what they will do with it when they get it. Then, because of someone else's actions, they lose that money! The second issue is about the underlying safety culture in a facility where this situation occurs. Making money or an award more important than safety, making it an end in itself rather than a means to an end for a safety workplace, is intolerable. When employees fail to report injuries or illnesses for fear of reprisal by their coworkers they are exhibiting the 'overall mentality' of the workforce at their facility. They have gotten the message loud and clear that their safety is not nearly as important as the award, the money, the record or the facility TIR. And that is a direct reflection of the attitudes (and behavior) of top management and supervisory personnel.

Reward the positives

  I work closely with my clients to design the rules for their safety incentive programs. Rules are typically written to give some points for individual safe behavior, team safe behavior and overall facility safe behavior. But I encourage my clients not to stop there. I am currently running programs that give points for reporting injuries and incidents, give points for reporting near misses, give points for interventions and behavioral observations. We give points for wearing seat belts, making safety suggestions, conducting meetings, doing audits, etc.

  Companies that reward employees for taking an active role in the safety effort are exhibiting a safety culture that is far removed from one which 'tacitly approves' of hiding accidents. (Dare I say that they have a more positive safety attitude?) They understand that the true value of an incentive program is the motivational and recognition aspect and don't see it as a way to bribe their employees to work more safely.

  Let's face it folks. Virtually no one is going to take the extra step for safety just to get an umbrella. Virtually no one is going to get on a behavioral safety observation team just for two points toward a cordless phone.

  They do those things because they are motivated from within to be safe. They view safety as a responsibility to themselves, their coworkers their families and their company. The safety award itself is tangible proof of their caring, their concern and their involvement. It's a way that the company reminds its employees of the importance of safety. A way that the company encourages and rewards safe behavior.

  If it has become a way to encourage non-reporting, hiding injuries and near misses, and ostracizing injured employees, perhaps it's not the program that is at fault. Perhaps we need to look deeper, rather that pointing a finger at the incentive program.

Be an educated customer

  An incentive awards program is really no different than, say, a respirator. It's simply another tool to assist in attaining the overall goal of safe and healthy workers. There are good ones on the market and not so good ones, just as there are good respirators and not so good respirators. Most companies do considerable research before they invest in respirators. They want to find the best one to meet the needs of their particular employees and facility. They carefully train their employees in respirator care, cleaning and use.

  But incentive programs are often thrown together at the last minute or bought on the basis of lowest cost or the cutest gimmick. A safety award is sometimes chosen as the 'path of least resistance.' It's much easier to say, "We'll give everyone a hundred dollars if we meet our goal," than it is to develop an overall program for motivating, recognizing and rewarding employees. A respirator that does not fit the employee is not going to help him a bit. And an incentive program that does not 'fit' is not going to work either.

  A safety incentive awards program is not 'the answer' to the safety challenge.

  It is not a substitute for training, safety meetings, equipment, management involvement and commitment. You need an incentive program to create a safety culture that must already be in place before incentives have any valuable effect. And a safety culture is an 'attitudinal thing' that translates into a 'behavioral thing.' When you can get those two aspects of safety working hand-in-hand, there will be no more fingers left to point at incentive programs as the 'bad guys' of safety.

OSHA'S Review of Incentive Programs Continues

  In early August, Martne Kent, director, OSHA Office of Regulatory Analysis submitted an interim status report of the agency's research on safety incentive programs to the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Hazard (NACOSH). The report did not address some of the pertinent questions surrounding the effectiveness of incentive programs in promoting safety and health in the workplace. "People expected a definitive account of what is a good or bad safety incentive program," says Kent, who is heading the research. "But that is not what we were asked to do - we were asked to review the literature, not evaluate the evidence." The interim report consists of a 25-page annotated bibliography of 170 articles, books, pamphlets, law case results, Web site ads for incentive programs, behavioral and management feedback studies and trade literature on the subject.

  The bibliography spans works across four decades, from the 1960s to today. Back in the fall of 1997, NACOSH was concerned that the promise of large cash rewards and other prizes in some safety incentive programs was encouraging workers to hide injuries and illnesses. Not only that but when these rewards and incentives involved groups rather than individuals the pressure to not disclose an accident increased even more. As a result, the committee had requested OSHA to study the facts and data available. According to Kent, NACOSH's main interest in this literature review is to find out what kind of research has been most effective on this subject so that it can either ask NIOSH or any other agency to fund a similar study. "I see no dominant trend," she continued. What she has found is a lot of conflicting information, "overwhelmingly anecdotal," with little systematic or scientific data.

  Overall, it appears there are two types of programs - those that set targets to achieve low injury rates and those that award gifts and/or points toward gifts and prizes for attending safety meetings, doing hazard analyses, reporting near misses and practicing safe behaviors. Of the two, Kent said "people seem to have more faith in the second type, the line between the two often seems to get blurred. It is very confusing."

  A lot of the articles indicate that rewards create an atmosphere of mistrust in the workplace. Rewards that should really serve to motivate workers to care about their own well-being and the safety of their coworkers end up distracting attention away from these goals.

  Interestingly, it also is obvious, according to Kent, that companies with good safety incentive programs already have a strong safety and health program in place. A good safety and health program has employee involvement, hazard analysis and injury reporting.

  Will OSHA consider passing a safety incentive program standard? No, Kent says. It is more likely it will be part of the safety and health standard. It is not in the plans right now, but the safety and health standard will require such elements as injury reporting, employee protection, and management response - all elements necessary for a good safety incentive program.

  In fact, OSHA's guidelines and recommendations for safety incentive programs at its Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) sites, emphasize the value of psychological rewards over large monetary ones.

  According to the guidelines, programs which recognize employee involvement is safety related activities and reward safe behaviors are more acceptable to the agency than those that are based upon reducing injuries and accidents.

  Vic Anapolle, of The Anapolle Group, says what's important is not the size of the prize but the structure of the program and honesty of the management. This is why he advises his clients to involve people in order to create a sense of trust and understanding. "Don't build up employee expectation that there will be a windfall," he says.

  According to Kent, the literature review report will be finished in October, in time for her to present it at the next NACOSH meeting.