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Safety incentive programs – Genius or disaster?
By William Cowie
Effective safety programs have serious ROI potential for your workplace. The Liberty Mutual Institute for Safety claims that for every $1 spent on workplace health and safety, they save at least $3. A poll of financial decision makers (chief financial officers, controllers, vice presidents and directors of finance) found that perceptions of ROI on work health and safety programs are even higher. They believe, on average, that every dollar spent on returning work health and safety would return about $4.41.
Even without financial considerations, a strong safety program fosters a robust safety culture. Safety is at the forefront of employee’s minds; they bring up potential issues and concerns, take initiative and are proactive about following safety guidelines. Safety becomes ingrained in the normal work habits of the organisation.
Safety incentive programs are one tool that can be used to develop that culture of safety in the workplace. These programs have, however, been the subject of criticism for a number of reasons. Is a safety incentive program an effective WHS tool or is it actually counterproductive to work health and safety?
What is a safety incentive program?
Incentive programs are intended to reward employees for good performance in the workplace. Reach certain performance goals and you’ll get a reward – money, time off, work lunches, goods or services. Even symbolic gestures like trophies or intrinsic rewards like prestige in the workplace can be valued in the right workplace culture. Incentive programs are used in many roles and industries, and are especially common in jobs like sales.
Strengths of an incentive program
Advocates of safety incentive programs point out benefits this kind of scheme can have for workplace health and safety.
Carrot vs the stick
Incentive programs are a ‘carrot’ used to encourage and promote appropriate behaviour in the workplace. When people see “What’s In It For Me”, they respond better than if you use threats or punishment. It shows that the employer cares about the safety of employees and is willing to make an effort (financial or symbolic) to recognise the work health and safety achievements of their employees.
Long term behaviour can be changed due to the focus on safety. Practice leads to proficiency – when workers continuously repeat safe practices in order to earn their rewards, safe procedures become ingrained in muscle memory and workplace culture. New employees learning the job from experienced workers will pick up those habits and attitudes through mimicry, leading to a long term culture of safety.
Improve morale & reduce worker compensation costs
Nothing destroys morale as quickly as accidents, injuries and fatalities in the workplace. Loss of a workmate puts a damper on productivity (not to mention it’s simply horrible to lose someone to injury or death).
It’s hard for people to enjoy their work and focus when they perceive themselves as being in danger (whether justified or not). Employees in an unsafe workplace are less productive because they’re constantly on edge, looking for threats.
Reducing work health and safety incidents helps workers to feel safe in their work environment. Less injuries also results in less workers’ compensation claims.
Harder to dissolve than maintain
Some proponents contend that incentive programs do no harm (even if they don’t necessarily help) and it’s easier to let them continue than try to dissolve them. Existing incentive programs are deeply woven into workplace culture, so dismantling the systems would do more harm to safety than good.
Criticisms of safety incentive programs
Critics highlight a number of flaws inherent in safety incentive programs.
They discourage reporting
Most safety incentive programs have a major flaw. They actually discourage employees from reporting accidents and injuries at work. The phenomenon of non-reporting is so common; it even has a moniker in the insurance industry – “bloody pocket syndrome”.
Workers will hide injuries and accidents (for example, but sticking a cut finger into his or her pocket) rather than report them for fear of blowing their own, or their teams, chance at a reward or bonus. Even if the individual wants to report an injury, they can be pressured by other workers, even ostracised, because everyone will lose their reward if the accident is reported.
They don’t mean change of existing processes and practices
Implementing a safety incentive program doesn’t require the management team to re-evaluate the underlying reasons for accidents in the workplace. Too often they’re a seen as a ‘silver-bullet’ that will magically reduce the instances of accidents and injuries.
They might reduce the reporting of incidents, as we’ve discussed earlier, but the near-misses and injuries are still occurring. In these cases, they simply serve to deflect attention from the real flaws and deficiencies in the broader health and safety plan. Accidents are normally the result of several factors: unsafe conditions, improper processes or procedures, and inappropriate actions.
They are thinly veiled bribery
Safety incentive programs imply that accidents are only caused by worker’s carelessness, or worse, are intentional “unsafe acts”. Paying rewards suggests that employees can be bribed to act differently.
In reality, they only secure compliance with safety directives when the employee can see a clear connection between the actions they take, and the reward they will receive. They don’t necessarily address the underlying attitudes, beliefs, and values that are the major influences behind actions at work.
In the long term, incentive programs can detrimentally affect safety behaviour in the organisation. Workers eventually feel entitled to safety bonuses as a normal perk of their employment. Employees, subcontractors and contractors will quickly learn the rules and how to manipulate incentive program to get the rewards, while making the minimum changes to their own behaviour.
Bribery also leads to disillusionment. Workers start to feel exploited because the rewards aren’t forthcoming, or it’s too hard to achieve the required standards. The rewards might be too insignificant, making them ineffective and even insulting. Too great a reward fosters resentment and jealously when some people receive and others miss out.
Should you implement one in your workplace?
It would seem the case against work health and safety incentive programs is strong. After all, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the United States has published articles disparaging incentive programs, and has always been critical of their use.
It’s important to note, though, OHSA is not truly against safety incentive programs. It is simply against any program that encourages workers to not report, or cover up, accidents or injuries. OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Richard E. Fairfax stated in an official memo; “While OSHA appreciates employers using safety as a key management metric, we cannot condone a program that encourages discrimination against workers who report injuries.” When workers are not free to report injury or illness, it puts the employer’s entire workforce at risk.
An incentive program can promote safety in the workplace, IF you carefully plan, design and implement an effective program that addresses the shortcomings of such a scheme.
Check out our follow up article, How to Create an Effective Safety Incentive Scheme in Your Workplace.
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