Incentives: Power Tools in Your Safety Program

OSHA's respirator standard introduces new requirements for fire brigade members entering dangerous situations.

Incentives. Rewards. Positive Reinforcement. Bribes.The carrot-and-stick. However you view them, incentive programs are a popular tool for eliciting safe work behaviors from employees. Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) openly frowns on their use, managers and employees alike find them appealing.

Both Acme Brick Co. and Monroe Manufacturing Inc. use incentives to engage employees in their safety programs. Acme uses incentives to reward safe performance; Monroe uses them to build and maintain safety awareness. Both credit incentives as instrumental to the program"s success though not the sole source of it and both are sold on incentives as a valuable management tool.

Building on Safety

At Acme Brick Co., a 107-year-old Ft. Worth-based manufacturer of bricks, concrete blocks, and frames for glass block installation, incentives have been part of the company"s safety program since John Koch joined it 34 years ago. As vice president of production and general production manager for the firm"s 20 facilities, Koch reports that Acme as a whole has a frequency rating for lost-time accidents of .11, against 3.4 for general industry and 6.0 for the brick industry, and the company"s production department"s1600 employees completed one full year without a lost-time accident while turning out almost one million bricks per year.

Among Acme"s facilities, the Kanopolis, Kan. plant has logged 24 years without a lost-time accident, three plants have more than eight years without one, two plants with seven years, three plants with more than five years, four facilities with between three and five years, and seven sites with between one and two years without a lost-time accident. Koch points out that half of these sites are state-of-the-art automated production facilities; the remainder mix manual and mechanical production activities. Acme"s 1,830 employees are engaged in mining the shale and clay, forming and processing it, kiln work, packaging, material handling, grading, loading, sales, administration and delivery operations. Not surprisingly, medical claims for back injuries are the most prevalent, followed by injuries to the hands and fingers, then the arms.

"The company believes safety starts with the managers," Koch explains. "Plant managers do their own thing with safety, and each plant"s safety program is tailored to the employees, the environment and the section of the country it"s in. Certainly, every program is in compliance with regulatory requirements, but they have their own systems of training and recognition. Acme"s plant staffs compete with their peers throughout the company in terms of safety performance."

"We have a slogan: "Safety equals quality equals cost in its importance"," Koch says. "We use that at the management level. The fact that we don"t have a canned program being fed to them gives them pride of authorship and creativity that helps them develop effective plans."

Managers are held accountable for lost-time incidents, which they must document in a letter to corporate. Those letters are shared with managers throughout the company, so that everyone has both the information and tools he needs to prevent the incident from recurring.

Incentives are part of the whole safety effort at Acme Brick. These range from monetary compensation to ball caps, jackets, special event tickets, meals, photos in the newspaper and company newsletter, to praise, and they are used to recognize the safety efforts of employees on a monthly or quarterly basis.

"It"s an attempt to get everyone involved with our safety program," Koch says. "If we have a philosophy, it"s that everybody gets something. Some get more than others, but everyone is rewarded for working safely." Bonuses are paid quarterly to employees who have no lost-time accidents in their department, and annual recognition is also given. Plants whose staffs log multiple years without a lost-time injury receive special recognition.

Incentives also encourage safe work habits among Acme"s truck drivers. Drivers earn bonuses amounting to thousands of dollars per year for not having a recordable accident or injury. Over the five years the program has been in place, several drivers have taken home more than $4,000 per year in bonuses.

Do those awards lead to under-reporting or concealing potential lost-time incidents? Koch doubts that: he says that Acme"s quarterly rewards for safety pave the way for employees to work, quarter by quarter, toward annual recognition of their safe work practices.

"It"s not as if there were just one big carrot out there," he says. "It"s the $35 per quarter that the employee can spend on fishing tackle that his wife doesn"t know about. It"s a short enough time to look at an attainable goal and recognize it, but long enough that it can be administered without complexity. We shoot for safety goals one day at a time."

Acme Brick"s safety program is multitiered: preshift safety meetings bring managers and workers together for preshift calisthenics and 5 to 15 minutes of discussion about safety issues. Plant managers meet monthly with the regional managers to discuss corporate safety goals and their own safety successes and failures. Even Acme"s annual management meeting includes a session on safety.

Acme"s human resources department generates a regular report that looks at all medical cases and all reported incidents (whether medical or lost-time) at each plant and compares the numbers against those of previous years. Recurring incidents are flagged, and plants are ranked according to the number and type of incidents. At the monthly managers" meeting, reasons for those recurrences are discussed. "This information allows management to act, rather than react," Koch says. "Publishing these reports allows managers to see what their peers are doing in terms of performance, lost-time accidents and incidents. The report goes to plant and production managers, who share it with their employees."

Workers subscribe to a motto: "Safety: It"s not a rule; it"s a tradition." Plant employees help conduct safety meetings, and everyone is rewarded in some way for working safely. "The key to keeping people interested is to keep them involved in the program to the greatest extent you can," Koch says. "You get cross-fertilization of ideas and enthusiasm that way."

He eagerly describes a "safety day" conducted last winter as a pre-emptive strike against complacency. Every plant, every sales office and every executive participated in a day-long series of programs and activities, punctuated by a luncheon. The goal, Koch says, was to put safety at the top of everyone"s mind. Members of senior management and guest speakers gave presentations at individual sites, and one plant manager created an innovative, though grim, series of contests to demonstrate the consequences of accidents. The manager taped employees" fingers together and asked them to thread nuts on bolts; covered one of their eyes and had them drop nails into a container; and bound one arm behind their backs before inviting them to tie their shoes. Winners earned cash awards, but everyone received a graphic lesson in safety.

Koch reports that Acme"s low rates of OSHA recordables, workers" compensation costs and insurance premiums reflect the effectiveness of its safety program and the camraderie it generates. "Safety is just part of the way we work," he says.

Winners at the Safety Game

Employees at baby products producer Monroe Manufacturing Inc. would no more start work without their bingo cards than their employee badges. That"s good, because the incentive to work safely that the bingo cards provide has energized the safety program at the Louisiana company in ways that astonish even its safety director.

Monroe"s three U.S. plants, staffed with 500 employees over three shifts, produce cloth and injection-molded plastic baby products (such as bottles and pacifiers) sold throughout the U.S. and120 countries. It also holds the European distribution license for Disney products. The firm"s production demands balance against risks related to ergonomics, production, packaging and distribution activities, and hazard communication issues (while few hazardous materials are involved in production, some are carcinogenic, with skin and eyes potentially at peril).

Safety Director Dan Chason points out that manufacturing jobs in northern Louisiana are valued, which adds to the risks employees face. "Employees" first concern is their paycheck. It"s difficult for them to slow down enough to think of safety," he says. "On one side, you have production managers pushing for numbers, and we want sales to go out: it"s what pays us. But we have to do it in a manner that puts safety first.

"The company uses my expertise to achieve a goal: to get the product out at good quality and at a reasonable cost in a reasonable amount of time and to do it safely," he continues. "If a product retails at $1.75 and we make 100 of them, but we have to send an employee to the hospital and it costs $300, we haven"t made any money."

When Chason joined Monroe 18 years ago, it was with full support from the owners. "That lets you do your job without worrying about hurting anyone"s feelings," he says. "The production managers can keep their minds on the job, their eyes on the ball and get the job done."

Safety is constantly before the employees. Weekly toolbox meetings offer an opportunity to reinforce the importance of guarding against accidents and carelessness and remind workers to address safety issues that they may not have kept up with.

Chason conducts ongoing supervisors" training himself. "My objective is to train the trainer. I have too many responsibilities to go out and catch everything myself," he says. "We want everyone to think safety."

Keeping employees focused on safety is where incentives such as safety bingo come in to Monroe"s program. Chason heard about it from the safety director of a company whose accident rate has decreased by 30 percent since he began using the bingo game. "The first year we used it (1996-97), there was a 60 percent reduction in day-to-day reported injuries insofar as people stopped hiding injuries to keep from hurting their bingo," Chason says. "I don"t mean the important injuries; I mean the idiotic stuff: standing on chairs, climbing without support, and back injuries. I have had to issue more safety equipment with safety bingo than I did before, but the employees are more concerned now about doing their jobs safely."

Each employee is issued a bingo card (with "B-Safe" in place of "Bingo") with his name and employee number on it. Every afternoon, Chason draws a number and announces it over the intercom. (The number is repeated during each shift.) Employees mark their cards, trying to complete a row in any direction. A full line, or bingo, earns $5 on the spot. The game continues (most run three months) until someone completes his card, when the shift is assembled in the break room and the supervisor awards a check for $300 to the winner. At least one, and sometimes several, employees have an opportunity to win the $5 and $300 prizes in any game. "It"s a constant reminder to be safe, and we remind them each day when we announce the number," Chason says. "It is so much more proactive and productive as far as the employees being active in it. They feel they own it. If we don"t announce the number on time, my phone starts to ring."

If an injury occurs, the employee is sent to the doctor. If the injury does not involve time lost from work, the employee is penalized losing one day from bingo. Should the injury result in lost time and a recordable injury, the game is cancelled. Is it effective in promoting safety?

"If you work next to me and your card is one spot away from being filled and I do something stupid, you"re going to exert some peer pressure," Chason explains. "What has improved most [since safety bingo started] is the number of reported potential safety hazards. The employees wave me down and point out problems, including people who aren"t working safely. I never got that before!"

When accidents occur, the employee, the supervisor, and the union steward are brought in to work on preventing a repetition of the accident. Monroe enjoys an active labor-management health and safety committee; members act as departmental safety officers. "The supervisors are responsible for enforcing safety; the safety officers are responsible for reporting safety violations," Chason says. "If a supervisor neglects safety for production, he is disciplined. The worst violation you can get in our system is a safety violation."

This year to date, Monroe has paid out six $300 prizes at one plant that has experienced no accidents. Chason explains that publicly awarding the money makes it more real for the employees, offers an opportunity to talk to the employees about how working safely can make the game go faster, and enables him to find out about problems of which he was not aware.

Forklift operators receive two training segments: one hands-on session about doing the job; the other, led by Chason, to teach them everything they need to know about operating a forklift, preventing accidents, dealing with hazardous spills, and the company rules regarding their responsibility. PPE is mandatory for forkllift operators, who are hand-picked by Chason for previous experience or mechanical aptitude. All are required to complete the training regimen.

Chason attributes his safety program"s success to maintaining a personal relationship with all employees to build trust, good communications with supervisors and a report generated by Monroe"s insurance administrator that details the firm"s accident history in terms of which days, times, and activities experience the most accidents, as well as the age and sex of those involved. "If you put those criteria together, it will lead you to the area and time and date with the greatest probability of an accident. If you"re there, the accident is less likely to happen and your numbers come down," he explains. "Those statistics are consistent over a number of years, to within an hour or two. Our most common times for accidents are the first thing on Monday mornings, Thursdays before we leave work, Friday at noon (when employees are focused on their paychecks), and one or two days before any major holiday."

"Our bottom line has decreased significantly, and we see a better profit range," Chason says. "It"s not just safety bingo; it"s the whole safety attitude. Our workers" compensation numbers and recordables are down, and my supervisors and I don"t have to work so hard. Instead of employees working safely out of fear of being caught, they do it because it affects them in their pocketbooks. It does anyway, but they may not understand that from a business standpoint, but they understand it on a personal level."

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