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Three reasons to abandon safety incentives

  • SIMA
- Posted: October 1, 2014
By Josh DeBroux
The use of incentives to promote safety always seems to divide an audience. Some agree with their use, while others are against them. One example of such a program might be rewards given after various numbers of hours worked without a certain type of incident. If you currently reward people for a lack of incidents, you need to stop. This isn’t just my opinion, but OSHA’s as well. The agency’s disapproval is very clear, and companies risk being cited for using such programs.
Besides the legal argument, there are practical reasons to abandon safety incentive programs. Think about what you are actually rewarding. If a person takes a serious risk and is fortunate enough not to get hurt and then receives a reward for it, did you reward the right behavior? Additionally, can someone do absolutely nothing and still receive the reward? Let’s focus on the typical but flawed approach that rewards a lack of incidents.
1. It discourages reporting
Why would I report an incident when you dangle a carrot in front of me for not having one? OSHA’s stance is that anything hampering an employee’s right to report a work-related injury is harmful.
Reporting injuries without the fear of consequence is a protected right under the law. To counteract this, some people suggest that it might be better to establish a group incentive. The thinking is that the group will encourage each other to work safely. This simply puts the same problem into a new package with higher stakes. How likely is someone to report an incident or injury that denies the entire group its reward? Now the element of peer pressure has been introduced and makes reporting even less likely.
Employers should always strive to build a culture where everyone is encouraged to report incidents, whether they are close calls, property damage, injuries or illnesses. Anything that discourages reporting should be minimized or taken away altogether. This is counterintuitive for most people. The reply to this statement is usually, “So you want us to have more accidents?” The response is, “We’re not encouraging accidents, but when they happen, we have to know about them so that we can learn.”
There are catastrophic incidents documented where a perception of safety existed due to a lack of incident reports, only to find out that nobody wanted to say anything as the precursors (i.e., minor incidents) were occurring that led to the event. By discouraging reporting, you lose your view of precursors to major incidents. I recall one instance where two employees separately reported a similar incident: the first slipped and nearly fell while on a flatbed truck unloading steel, and the other actually fell off the flatbed. While the latter only received some bruises and was very sore for a while, he nearly missed hitting his head on the corner of a heavy steel cart. The investigation revealed a serious risk. In an environment where reporting is discouraged, we may never have learned about these incidents.
2. The reward actually becomes a punishment
Some may argue that the incentive is not large enough to discourage reporting. Even token incentives become symbols that take on a larger meaning. I can recall several instances early in my career where employees would approach me, eager to report an incident, but anxiously asked if they would lose their safe hours before giving me the full details. This is obviously dysfunctional.
What also astounded me were the extreme feelings that would arise when a person’s safe hours were reset after an incident. In many cases the employee was simply losing out on a flashlight, knife (I know, knives as safety incentives — let’s not go there.) or other small item. It was not so much the item that was denied, but the idea that they were now viewed as unsafe and had to start over — a form of punishment in their eyes. The reward was dangled in front of them and then snatched away.
In Alfie Kohn’s book “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s Praise, and Other Bribes,” he says: “The troubling truth is that rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin. And it is a coin that does not buy very much.”
3. They change behavior, but not as intended
An incentive plan is usually intended to change the behavior of people — to give them a reason to work safely instead of unsafely. If someone is prone to taking shortcuts during a certain task, do you think a hat, jacket, flashlight or gift card is going to prevent them from doing it? Further, do you think they actually tie the shortcut to the idea that they may get hurt and lose their reward? This is a major dividing point in the incentive discussion.
I would argue that people don’t think they will get hurt when they take a shortcut, or the chances are so slim that the shortcut is worth taking. If they honestly thought they would get hurt with each shortcut, they wouldn’t do it, regardless of the carrot dangled in front of them. The incentive to not get hurt is usually enough if they genuinely believe it may happen. The behavior change you actually get is hiding or half-truths when incidents occur. In this regard, you have changed people’s behavior.
It is also interesting to note that there are studies showing the interest rate or level of engagement in a task is decreased or eliminated by introducing a reward or incentive — one more reason to avoid the whole deal in the first place.
Manipulating or bribing employees with incentives is fairly commonplace. By doing this, you not only put yourself at legal risk, you also drive reporting underground. This leads to a false perception of safety that breeds a lack of information and learning that could hopefully prevent the next major incident.
Josh DeBroux is environmental health and safety director for BOSS Snowplows.
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