Safety Incentive Policies Overseas

AFL-CIO in the States has given us permission to re-publish one of their articles. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is a voluntary federation of 56 national and international labor unions and represents 10.5 million members.

Safety Incentive and Injury Discipline Policies: The Bad, the Worse and the Downright Ugly

Workers face increasing obstacles in achieving safe and healthy workplaces. In an effort to save money and keep OSHA away, employers are armed with a bag of tricks to intimidate workers and prevent them from reporting injuries. These include, but may not be limited to, safety incentive programs, injury discipline policies and other gimmicks that focus entirely on workers’ behavior to make a workplace safe.

Safety Incentive Programs

  • In a Washington state workplace, workers were offered three tokens worth $1.00 each for every month they went without reporting carpal tunnel syndrome, heat stress or any other work-related injury or illness. More tokens were offered quarterly if the entire workforce did not report an injury or illness.
  • A Midwestern industrial firm invited all workers who did not report a job injury or illness for the year to an annual banquet. There, the name of a banquet attendee was pulled out of a hat; that person left with a check for $10,000.
  • At a Northeastern construction site, monies are made available on a periodic basis to contractors who have low injury rates; that money is then divided among the contractor’s workers who did not report injuries.

These types of ‘safety incentive’ programs have been around for a long time; today they are an increasingly popular part of employers’ so-called safety efforts. They are as damaging now as they were when they first began appearing decades ago.

The theory that supposedly underlies these programs is that workers’ unsafe behaviors are to blame for workplace injuries and illnesses. Under this theory, providing prizes and rewards will encourage workers to behave safely on the job and therefore not get injured. Absent in this ‘blame the worker’ theory is the role that hazardous workplace conditions play in job-related injury, illness and death.

It is in employers’ interests to hold to such worker-blaming theories and provide rewards to workers when they do not report injuries. Here is what employers get from this deal:

  • The fewer injuries and illnesses that workers report, the lower the number of OSHA recordables that must be entered on a company’s OSHA 200 log of worksite injuries and illnesses. The lower the injury rate on a firm’s log, the lower the chance that an employer will be targeted by OSHA for an inspection.
  • When workers don’t report injuries and illnesses as work-related, they also may not file a workers’ compensation claim and/or may be denied a future claim for that injury. This in turn can reduce an employer’s workers’ compensation premiums and payments.

Harming Workers and Jeopardizing Worksite Safety

While employers save money and can escape OSHA scrutiny, workers and workplaces suffer from the presence of these ‘safety incentive’ programs:

  • When workers are discouraged from reporting work-related injuries and illnesses, they may not receive early diagnosis and treatment of their ailments, as well as the compensation they deserve.
  • When job injuries and illnesses are not reported, the hazards on the worksite that caused them are not identified and targeted for elimination or correction. Hazards in today’s worklaces that cause or contribute to job injury, illness and death include toxic chemicals; unguarded machines; understaffing; improperly designed tools, equipment and workstations; fatigue from long work hours; heavy work loads; rapid pace of work; production pressures and a myriad of other safety, chemical, biological, and physical and work organization factors. Hazards that are not eliminated or reduced will continue to hurt or maim additional workers.

What Does OSHA Think of These Programs?
A recent OSHA study that included a ‘literature review’ of safety incentive programs concluded that there is no basis for employer claims that programs that provide prizes to workers who don’t report injuries actually make workplaces safer. The OSHA study also commented on the “chilling effect” that these programs have on workers’ willingness to report job injuries and illnesses.

OSHA has also cited and fined a company under the OSHA recordkeeping standard for having a safety incentive program that discouraged workers from reporting injuries and illnesses.

Injury Discipline Policies

  • In a manufacturing plant in Oklahoma where there was an epidemic of back and repetitive strain injuries, all workers who reported an injury received a letter from the company stating, ‘It is your responsibility to perform your job in a safe manner to ensure that you are not a safety hazard to yourself and others. To remain in the employment of Company XXX your safety performance must become satisfactory to management. If you are involved in another unsafe act while at work, management will investigate the incident as well as your safety performance and will determine the status of your employment, which may include discipline up to and including discharge.’
  • After an Ohio company received a $290,000 OSHA fine for lack of fall protection, electrical hazards and repeat lock-out/tag-out violations, a number of employer policies were instituted that threatened workers with discipline and drug testing if they reported any work-related injuries or illnesses.

Even more sinister is the other side of the ‘safety incentive’ coin: employer policies (like those above) that threaten and deliver discipline to workers who report job injuries and illnesses.

The same flawed theory underlies these policies: that it is workers’ unsafe acts rather than hazardous workplace conditions that cause job injuries and illnesses. Injury discipline policies literally add insult to injury. Rather than identifying root causes of occupational injuries and illnesses and addressing safety, chemical, biological, physical and work organization hazards, workers are blamed and punished for reporting their injuries.
Programs like these can be extremely effective in ending the reporting – not the experience – of work-related injuries and illnesses. The safety of workers and workplaces then suffer the same consequences as those mentioned earlier in the section on safety incentive programs.

Safety Incentive and Injury Discipline Programs:  Worksite Hazards to be Eliminated

Safety incentive programs that provide prizes or cash to workers if they do not report a work-related injury or illness, and deny such rewards to workers who do report; and injury discipline policies that threaten and deliver discipline to workers who report their injuries and illnesses, are, in and of themselves, worksite safety and health hazards that need to be eliminated.

Thanks to AFL-CIO for their permission to use this material. It certainly is an eye-opener on what goes on in the Health and Safety arena in the US.

About the Author

Safety Concepts is an online resource providing up to date insights and covering issues in the field of Workplace Safety.

Comments (3)

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  2. Sam says:

    The incentive program somehow assumes that workers are responsible for accidents and undesirable events. However, in most plants, it is the design (not just of the plant but also of the job, process, workflow,etc) which is at fault for many accidents. Poor engineering design is amny times the root cause of many an accident.
    This is not addressed by any such incentive programs at all!

  3. Frank says:

    When safety incentive programs are based on lagging indicators they fail to be proactive. When incentives are based on leading indicators like hazards and near misses reported and controled, work place obervations conducted, and opportunitys for process improvements identifed you will see a reduction in your lagging indicators, which will demonstrate a proactive approch!
    Google: Green Beans and Ice cream its just one concept out there.

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