Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The ugly side of safety incentives

Safety incentive programs are generally developed to encourage employees to practice safe working habits on the job. Unfortunately, how some organizations design and execute their programs can be dangerously flawed, putting more employees at risk for injury.

In a series of articles dealing with Workers’ Compensation issues, entitled “A World of Hurt,” one of the most recent articles examines how safety incentive programs may be causing more harm than good. Employees at one New York DuPont plant, are being peer pressured into not reporting workplace injuries in order for everyone to receive safety rewards.

From the New York Times article:

TONAWANDA, N.Y. — The sprawling DuPont plant along the Niagara River here can be a grim place, but less so on the days when the company hands out coupons to reward workers for a few weeks without injury.

Called “safety bucks,” the coupons look like real money and can be redeemed at Red Lobster, Home Depot and several other businesses in the area.

For some workers who risk their fingers and bones to make Corian, the stonelike countertop material that is the plant’s major product, the coupons have become a modest blessing and benefit. But other workers regard them as a curse, as a way to mobilize peer pressure against workers who might consider reporting an injury.

“You know that if you report an injury, everybody says, ‘You son of a bitch,’ ” said Dan Austin, who worked at the plant for 30 years. “I’ve heard people say, ‘So-and-so reported an injury and it’s going to cost us our safety bucks this month.’ ”

Companies across the state have recently introduced reward programs to curtail injuries, in part to keep their workers safe, in part to cut down on workers’ compensation claims, which managers cite as a huge factor in the high cost of doing business in New York.

The article goes on to explain how New York’s workers’ compensation system is “plagued” by an ongoing list of failures, including a war between employers and employees over workplace injuries.

When it comes to safety incentives, a program will never be successful if employees are cursing each other for reporting injuries. Some in the safety industry suggest that instead of rewarding a lack of accidents, rewarding safe behavior will improve the effectiveness of your program.

Robert Breslin at SafetyXChange says that the problem with most safety incentive programs is that managers aren’t rewarding safe behavior, just the “absence of unsafe behavior.” That major flaw is actually providing employees with an incentive to fail to report or under-report workplace injuries.

Breslin suggests that companies “stop rewarding the lack of unsafe behavior and start rewarding safe behavior,” giving this example of what an effective incentive program would look like:

Instead of awarding each employee on a quarterly basis $50 in cash, equivalent non-cash prizes or chances to win prizes, take that $50 and buy 10 $5 gift certificates to a local store, movie theater, restaurant, car wash, etc. Then, pass out those gift certificates when you see someone doing something right. And do it with fanfare. “Hey Jim, glad to see you finally remembered your safety glasses! Here’s a gift certificate.” Before you return to your office, everyone in the facility will know what you just did.

What you’ve just done is reward safe behavior. And in encouraging safe behavior, you’re cultivating safe attitudes, as well. As a side benefit, you’re improving your relationships with workers and getting them to actually look forward to your visits. Last but not least, you’re accomplishing all of these things cost-effectively and saving your company money.
Every organization can learn a lesson from the flawed safety incentive program at the New York DuPont plant, but you still shouldn’t forgo the idea of implementing a program of your own. But remember to use safety incentives to reinforce positive behavior, not the absence of poor behavior, and you’ll be on course for success.

Does your organization use employee incentives to encourage on-the-job safety? What worked or didn’t work at your organization that you think others could learn from? Leave a comment and let us know.

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