Carrots and Sticks: Do Safety Incentive Programs Really Work?

OSHA Ruling Puts Safety Incentive Programs in the Spotlight

On April 9, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a study of workplace safety incentive programs that found little evidence that they affect safety one way or the other. However, the GAO recommended that OSHA make a ruling on incentive programs, and OSHA’s subsequent recommendation was to regard certain kinds of safety programs as impediments to worker health. Was this the correct approach? Let’s look at some different kinds of safety incentives and see what works.

Rate-Based Safety Programs—The Carrot

We’ve all seen variations on the sign at a manufacturer or warehouse stating, “126 days without an injury.” This is usually indicative of a rate-based safety program, which offers rewards for low injury rates. Often the whole staff or a particular team is given a pizza party or some other reward for not getting injured on the job. Many safety experts believe there could be an unintended effect: pressuring employees not to report the injuries they do get for fear of negative consequences. OSHA’s recommendation targets rate-based safety programs based on the likelihood of this unintended outcome. 

Behavior-Based Safety Programs—The Stick

 “Behavior-based safety” was coined in the late 1970s and became the rallying cry for new safety programs that staged observers to notice both the at-risk and safe work habits and provide feedback. In behavior-based safety, reports of worker behavior are compiled, trends noticed, and recommendations made. However, many believe these programs have evolved into a “blame the worker” approach that erodes morale and is costly to implement. An oft-cited criticism of behavior-based safety programs is that all too often they focus on changing the behavior of workers, when in fact the system that causes the behavior is left unaddressed. Many safety experts also believe behavior-based safety programs are enacted as a “silver bullet” by management as a substitute for a true culture of safety. OSHA’s recommendation validates behavior-based safety programs.

True Safety Culture—the Approach that Works

Differences between Positive and Negative Safety Culture

Positive Safety Culture

Negative Safety Culture

Safety is an asset.

Safety is a liability.

Workers want to work safely.

Workers can’t be trusted.

Evaluate the entire system first.

Evaluate the worker first.

Workers know how to improve systems.

Workers’ ideas will cost us money.

Address hazards immediately.

Enact workarounds and hope no one gets hurt.

People/Safety more important than production.

Production more important than people/safety.

Employees rewarded for good safety ideas.

Employees are disciplined using safety rules.

Communication is encouraged between all levels.

Fear or intimidation inhibits open communication.

Well-being is valued (people over appearance).

Safety record is valued (appearance over people).

Management plays by the same safety rules.

Management is above the rules. 

Companies with truly exceptional safety records take a different approach from that of rate-based safety incentive programs or typical behavior-based safety programs. Such companies, such as OSHA VPP Star-certified organizations, build a true culture of safety by involving management at the highest level of the company, the workers at the lowest end of the pay scale, and everyone in-between. Safety culture recognizes that both the keys to safety and the impediments to safety are primarily cultural, which is to say that the company’s core values drive safety.

Executive Buy-In

The most critical component of a positive safety culture is the complete buy-in by management. If senior management allows unsafe conditions to persist in a workplace, a belief is created that unsafe conditions are acceptable and that there is something more important than people and their safety. Conversely, if safety is seen as a dominant value in the company, employees will prioritize it.

How to Achieve Executive Buy-In

Appeal to bottom line: When approaching executives with safety data and initiatives, calculate and demonstrate time lost because of injury/illness as well as increased workers’ comp premiums as direct costs against productivity and profit margin.

Appeal to line managers: When meeting with line management, ask how safety can benefit their individual business objectives. It’s important to demonstrate that safety initiatives are an asset that will benefit them rather than hinder them.

Get a second opinion: Often, it takes an outside assessment to gain credibility. The company safety officer may seem biased, but it’s hard to argue with the report of a paid consultant or data provided by employee climate surveys or sensing sessions.

Use what already works: It may work to bring safety and health objectives into business structures that are already found to be effective, rather than creating new structures that must be learned and bought into.

Employee Buy-In

Once management has bought into the value of a top-notch occupational health and safety program, it’s their job to make sure the message gets out—both in word and in deed. Posting safety slogans on the lunchroom wall does not equal good safety communication.

How to Achieve Employee Buy-In

Give authority to the safety committee: The safety committee, which is made up of both management and employees, must be authorized to enact changes and make expenditures to improve and elevate safety.

Give employees a voice: Put a structure in place that ensures that every single safety idea, report of an incident, or report of a near miss is heard by management, given careful consideration, and responded to directly. Thanking the employees who do so is effective, and it should be emphatically communicated that no employee will be penalized in any way for reporting an issue. It is illegal to do so.  

Deputize the “true believers”:  Find representatives from management and employee ranks who are passionate about safety, and involve them in safety problem solving, the safety committee, safety training, and other tasks that allow them to make a difference.

Reinforce the message: Use job hazard analyses to discover the hazardous ways your workers do their jobs, and use the information to provide adequate training on how to perform their tasks safely. In addition, use safety signs and labels throughout the facility to underscore necessary work processes and precautions.

Address the system: Change work processes and any other factors that motivate employees to take shortcuts or engage in any risky behavior. There must be no penalty for doing something the safe way, even if it takes more time. This cannot be emphasized enough.

Solve ergonomic problems: Part of safety training is teaching workers how to use their bodies properly. Not only does this include the “heavy lifters,” but also those who sit at desks all day. Providing ergonomic assessments and equipment for optimal desk posture lets office workers know that their safety is taken seriously too.

Reward with recognition: The best recognition employees can receive is the acknowledgement from management and peers that they are doing a good job by being safe. This works better than pizza parties, T-shirts, and trophies.