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OSHA’s Warning on Safety Incentive Programs Are Wide of the Mark

Oct. 5, 2012
I’ve spent more than 40 years in safety and believe that at the end of the day, most companies want to keep their employees safe and act in good faith to motivate them to follow the rules.

Some good-faith efforts by employers to motivate employees to work safely are running afoul of OSHA, which believes that rewards like a pizza party to celebrate a safety milestone actually may provide a disincentive for employees to report injuries. However, in an attempt to clarify its position, OSHA has cast a net that is too wide and only will lead to confusion over how a company may use incentives to motivate workers.

I am not in any way suggesting that companies cover up injuries or punish employees who report them. Nor do I believe that safety incentive programs really work. (More on that in a bit.) But companies that choose to use those programs in good faith deserve better guidance from OSHA.

What  the  Memo Says

OSHA's latest memo warned employers that rewards programs unintentionally – or perhaps even intentionally – could encourage employees not to report injuries.

Among the examples OSHA cited as potential violations: programs in which all employees were entered into a prize drawing or received bonuses if their work group remained safe over a period of time. Even supervisor bonuses for lowering injury rates have been declared suspect. Rewards programs that don't follow OSHA guidelines could lead to violations of recordkeeping rules or violations for discriminating against an employee who reports an injury.

OSHA recommended employers instead provide commendations for such activities as serving on safety committees, suggesting ways to strengthen safety and health, completing company-wide training programs or participating in investigations to indentify hazards. But while these may be important tasks, they are tied to an activity rather than an outcome. Essentially, OSHA is saying that injury-and-illness-rate-based incentive programs are potential violations while behavior-based programs are not.

OSHA's memo is intended to be used by inspectors and investigators as they visit workplaces.  While there have been few cases of companies being fined for reasonable incentive programs, the memo still is significant.

We also should understand that it was the Government Accountability Office that prompted the OSHA memo. In an April report on workplace safety incentive programs, the GAO surveyed two studies examining whether incentive programs potentially could lead to a disincentive to report injuries. Both of those studies found no correlation, yet the GAO report still led to the OSHA memo.

OSHA  Takes  Aggressive Stance

This latest memo is yet another sign that OSHA continues to find fault with many traditional safety approaches. OSHA, however, doesn't seem to have an issue with pay-for-piece work. What greater incentive is there for unsafe behavior than the possibility of increased earnings?

It leaves open to interpretation the "how" and "why" of a safety incentive program. Is a party to mark a safety milestone an opportunity to reward and thank employees, something that most human resources experts tell us workers  crave? Or is it a form of pressure to prevent employees from reporting injuries? In many cases, the answer is subjective -- and that subjectivity conceivably could lead to fines. OSHA's aggressive stance may be well founded in some cases, but it is so broad and confusing that many companies could be found at fault.

The  Greater  Challenge

Let's take a step back and consider whether incentive programs really work in the first place. I don't believe they do. Other, more proven approaches will provide a better outcome -- and OSHA hasn't yet issued warnings about them.

Take Joe, for example. He's finishing up his workday, hurrying to get done so he can get to his son's Little League championship game. Is the promise of a pizza party or a chance in a drawing going to cause him to stop to take proper safety precautions? Or is his desire to make it to the first pitch going to override any safety incentive? I think most of us know the answer. That's why I'm a proponent of a more fundamental approach based on management responsibility, compliance and creating a culture of employees who want to be safe.

This comes by reminding employees why they work in the first place: to provide for their families. By understanding the bigger picture, Joe might think beyond that one championship game to all the games that will follow. It may be enough to make him stop for a moment and not put his family's future at risk just to see that first pitch. I guarantee that a company culture that takes this approach to safety will be far more successful than an organization that operates in a climate of fear, or one that throws an occasional pizza party.

Safety violations rarely are the result of an employee failing to understand the rules and safe practices. Instead, it's a lack of understanding of the need for safety -- and safety leaders are at fault for much of that. If a company communicates that the most important reason to follow a safety standard – such as wearing personal protective equipment -- is to prevent an OSHA fine, then the PPE may well not be worn on a day when the weather makes it too uncomfortable.

The  Ultimate  Incentive

The ultimate safety incentive is a larger understanding of why employees should want to be safe.  At the end of the day, it is not so the company will stay under OSHA's radar. And it certainly is not so that everyone can earn a T-shirt. It's so the employee is able to go home to his or her loved ones – who are the reasons he or she comes to work in the first place.

Safety incentive programs simply don't provide the best outcome, and now that OSHA has targeted them, perhaps it's time to try a new tactic: one that focuses on the true realities of why employees come to work in the first place, and why they should want to be safe.

Jim Stanley is president of FDRsafety, a safety staffing, training and consulting firm, and is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA. Contact him at (513) 317-5644 or [email protected].

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