Critics claim a tunnel-vision focus on maintaining zero does more damage than good. It fosters fear and anxiety rather than a positive, engaging atmosphere where workers can gain valuable safety experience from close calls and mistakes.

How To Motivate Employees Through the Language of Workplace Safety

June 15, 2015
Is a "zero-injury" goal the best way to motivate employees? While such goals long have been a central part of workplace safety strategies, industry-wide concern over the concept of “zero” has initiated a rather dramatic shift.

What sounds better: a workplace driven by a constant fear of imperfection or an environment that accepts failure as a necessary stop on the way to improvement? Seems like an easy choice. So why have organizations spent decades pushing safety programs that promote the former rather than the latter?

Zero-injury goals have long been a central part of workplace safety strategies. But over the past several years, industry-wide concern over the concept of “zero” has initiated a rather dramatic shift. Many companies now are focusing on developing a culture of safety built on encouraging safe behaviors rather than pursuing the mirage of a zero-injury workplace.

What’s the problem with “zero," anyway? It all comes down to semantics and the power of language to motivate and shape the behaviors of workers on a daily basis. Critics who call for an end to zero-injury goals warn that a tunnel-vision focus on maintaining zero does more damage than good. It fosters fear and anxiety rather than a positive, engaging atmosphere where workers can gain valuable safety experience from close calls and mistakes.

Defenders of zero-injury goals argue that it is unethical to aim for anything but zero, and that removing the language of zero signals to your workforce that corporate profits outweigh safety concerns. But these supposed signals mean little compared to the realities on the ground – and organizations are beginning to face the hidden consequences of the zero-injury mentality.

Fear & Loathing in the Workplace

At the very heart of this debate is the industry’s widespread underreporting of close calls, accidents and injuries, all of which are related to workers’ fear of failure. This has become a growing concern for OSHA, which repeatedly has warned against the use of employee safety programs that offer bonuses and other incentives for individuals or teams that achieve a certain number of hours without an injury.

The problem? No worker wants to be held responsible for his or her entire team missing out on an incentive. As a result, many close calls and injuries are swept under the rug.

“These incentive programs can discourage employees from reporting injuries because they want to receive the reward,” says David Michaels, OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor. “Good incentive programs feature positive reinforcement when workers demonstrate safe work practices, and when workers take active measures such as reporting close calls, abating hazards and using their stop-work authority to prevent a workplace tragedy.”

While OSHA has yet to explicitly call for an end to zero-injury strategies, these comments reflect the main concerns of safety experts and critics. The end desire is the transformation of workplaces from cultures of fear to cultures of reinforcement, and to realign incentives to reward the practice of safe behaviors rather than the results of safe behaviors.

A Hail Mary Pass on Every Play

Let’s be clear: everyone wants zero injuries. But it’s not the end goal that’s on trial here, it’s the messaging and marketing of safety programs to workers. Should organizations see zero injuries as the primary focus of their safety program, or as a byproduct of an effective strategy? Zero is much more likely to be realized when the emphasis is placed on the means to the end rather than the end itself.

By zero-injury logic, offensive coordinators in football should call long Hail Mary passes on each and every play, regardless of the field position or number of downs. Everyone wants a touchdown, so it would be unacceptable to throw a pass shy of the end zone, right? And let’s bench every receiver who fails to catch the ball that we hurl down field with our eyes closed and fingers crossed.

In reality, football teams string together successful and unsuccessful plays, learning from mistakes and driving together toward the goal line. And our safety programs should work the same way.

Workers should be motivated to exhibit safe behaviors, stay up to date on the latest safety training, report close calls, and contribute to a culture of teamwork and shared responsibility. Rather than withholding incentives from a worker (and his or her entire team) after an accident, take the opportunity to learn from the mistake and review training strategies. A zero-injury work environment is a desirable but ultimately unrealistic goal. It’s a Hail Mary program that lacks perspective and flexibility.

The Changing Language of Safety

Tracking the broad shift away from zero-injury incentive programs is not an easy task, but looking at the long-term sales trends of promotional safety products offers one data point to grasp.

“Zero injuries” has long been a top-selling safety message on banners, posters and other promotional items. But according to sales trend data provided by Positive Promotions, a company specializing in workplace safety promotional products, demand for zero-injury merchandise has decreased significantly over the past few years.

The company has noted a marked shift in sales away from zero-injury products and toward more specific behavioral messages. President Roy Ryniker notes that, “Over the past three years, our zero injury banners are being outsold three-to-one by more targeted informational safety banners.”

It has reached the point where the company no longer stocks “zero-injury” T-shirts, lunch bags or any other zero harm products due to their lack of popularity.

Diminishing sales of zero-injury banners may or may not be indicating a shift in the language used by organizations to market safety programs – but a movement away from “zero” does appear to be under way. It likely will be accelerated by both OSHA’s campaign against zero-injury incentive programs and the debate that continues to rage within the industry. It’s difficult to say whether the zero-injury goal is a failed strategy at this point, but future safety reporting trends likely will offer clear hindsight one way or the other.

The way an organization structures and speaks to its safety goals has a direct impact on employee motivation and engagement. As the industry moves away from zero injury programs, it is essential to replace them with strategies that encourage workers with positive reinforcement and a flexible culture of learning.

Scott Merilatt is a freelance writer and editor from Seattle, Wash. He specializes in a range of occupational health and safety topics.

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