Workplace injury is a major concern for employers in all industries across the board, particularly in our litigious society, and there are various theories and ideas about how to improve safety without sacrificing productivity and efficiency. Among these efforts is that of safety incentive programs, which are formal processes designed to encourage best safety practices through a system of rewards. There is some debate whether or not these programs encourage, discourage, or have no effect on safety in the workplace. For many employers, these programs are simply adopted as a best practice, and they never follow up to see if the program is actually working.
A recent report cites an incident from 2005 wherein the explosion at the Texas City BP refinery killed 15 workers and injured 180—the refinery had a safety incentive program in place, but a later study indicated that workers were still afraid to report risky conditions, for fear of reprisal from management.
The follow-up study, along with one conducted in 2009 by the federal Government Accountability Office, found that such safety incentive programs can actually have the opposite effect of their intention. That is to say, safety incentive programs can create a disincentive for reporting, because workers will be afraid of the consequences of reporting injuries and illnesses.
The most recent GAO study recommends that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) take a more direct hand in examining the efficacy of safety incentives and other reporting programs. OSHA is currently not required to oversee safety incentives, but GAO feels that it’s important for OSHA to evaluate the potential effects, both positive and negative, of such policies and procedures where injury and illness reporting are concerned.
In response to GAO’s recommendations, OSHA has issued a statement to employers, warning that employees have the right to report injuries and safety issues, and acting against them for exercising such rights is discriminatory. If, for example, an employer provides a drawing for a cash prize every year that is open to any employees who have not been injured, this can be viewed as a disincentive to report injuries, as much as it can be viewed as an incentive to practice safe workplace procedures.
Types of Employee Safety Incentives
The two basic types of incentive programs are rate-based and behavior-based programs, and each has its own benefits and drawbacks.
- Rate-Based Programs offer prizes, cash bonuses, or other physical rewards for having a low or null rate of injuries or illnesses in the workplace over a specified period (6 months, 1 year, etc.)
- Behavior-Based Programs are not tied to illness and injury rates, but to engaging in safe practices in the workplace. In this case, rewards may be provided to workers who identify dangerous working conditions, or suggesting potential improvements to safety policies; in many cases, these programs also penalize employees for not engaging in best safety practices.
The GAO report found little evidence to support how effective safety incentive programs in the workplace are, but did conclude that rate-based programs act as disincentive to report safety issues, since doing so could exempt the reporter from offered rewards.