by Stephen G. Minter
Do incentives have a place in safety? That question has been debated in our pages and in many other forums for so long that it has become the safety equivalent of a blue state/red state issue. You're either for or against them, and there is little ground for discussion or compromise.
To me, safety incentives are really another tool in the safety holster. They are not intrinsically good or bad. They are, however, easy to implement and, as a result, frequently abused. If a company has a "safety program" that consists solely of rewarding employees with cash or prizes if they go a month without a lost-time injury, then they are misusing this tool as surely as if they were hammering nails with a wrench.
Safety recognition expert Bill Sims Jr. notes in our article, "Seven Suggestions for a Successful Safety Incentives Program," that these programs "complement a well-rounded safety program. If you don't have return-to-work light-duty programs, accident investigations, safety committees, you have no business running a safety recognition program."
At their best, though, safety incentive programs reinforce the importance of safety, reward employees for safe work practices and provide a welcome dose of recognition for employees who too often go unnoticed unless they do something wrong.
Safety incentives also may help to play a role in a broader issue facing the workplace. Last month, the Conference Board reported that half of all Americans are satisfied with their jobs, down from nearly 60 percent in 1995. And even among the half who say they are satisfied with work, only 14 percent say they are "very satisfied."
Lynn Franco, director of the organization's Consumer Research Center, said, "Rapid technological changes, rising productivity demands and changing employee expectations have all contributed to the decline in job satisfaction."
In addition, noted Shubhra Ramchandani, a management expert at TNS, the firm that conducted the survey for the Conference Board, "Less than one-third of all supervisors and managers are perceived to be strong leaders. The Enron/Worldcom era of corporate scandals and the outsourcing of jobs have increased the level of employee discontent. Shrugging off employee disengagement would be a disastrous, short-sighted view creating lasting global repercussions for American business."
In a supplemental survey that TNS conducted last August, the firm uncovered these disturbing results:
- 40 percent of workers feel disconnected from their employers.
- 66 percent of workers do not identify with or feel motivated to drive their employer's business goals and objectives.
- 25 percent of employees are just "showing up to collect a paycheck."
Safety and health managers talk often about the need to integrate safety with their respective organization's overall strategy and goals. That need certainly exists, but even more broadly, safety managers may be able to play a part in reconnecting employees with their company's business goals.
Safety programs should be about the common good. Companies should clearly articulate their appreciation for the value of employees' health and safety, and realize that a positive safety and health culture can pay both emotional and financial dividends. If an employee sees that his company truly values his safety and health, he may be more inclined to contribute what he can to helping that employer meet its business goals. Conversely, if he sees a cynical approach to safety, a "minimum compliance" mindset or worse, then that company doesn't have a prayer of getting his full effort.
That same message appears in our lead article, "Fall Prevention in the Construction Industry." Authors Scott Potts and James D. McGlothlin looked at successful construction safety programs. According to their research, "The primary reason for the success of large construction companies at reducing construction falls is that upper management has made a commitment to be safe. In making that commitment, they create momentum that motivates middle managers, construction supervisors and, finally, trade workers to be safe."
Safety can't take the full weight of improving American management on its shoulders, but it does have an important contribution to make. Given the findings of the Conference Board survey, there never has been a better time to make the case for the value of occupational safety and health.