Rethinking safety incentives

What are better ways to recognize workers?

It's an issue that’s seen much debate over the past decade: Safety incentive programs are designed to incent workers to create a strong safety culture — yet often, traditional "milestone" incentive programs can have unintended consequences.

Peer pressure, resentment, disengagement and — most importantly — non-reporting of injuries and incidents are common byproducts of these incentive programs, said Jamie Wright, a delegate on the Ontario Unifor Regional Council Health, Safety and Environment Committee.

"(These) programs focus more on the workers… So part of that is usually aligned with, if you meet these targets — in other words, you don’t have an injury, you don’t report an injury — at the end of the month, we’ll give you a prize, a coat, movie tickets, a pizza, lunch," he said. "Typically, there’s peer pressure — a lot of times (co-workers) will say ‘Don’t you report that injury, because we’re not going to get our reward.’ I call it the ‘get safe quick’ scheme. They don’t work."

This incentive model started in the mid-1960s, and for decades incentive programs have been almost exclusively based on these milestone awards, said Jim Barr, vice president of sales at C.A. Short, based in Shelby, N.C.

"A typical milestone program would be like, one year without a lost time accident. They might also measure workdays without a lost time accident or even work hours," he said. "Also, many times they were what was called ‘all or nothing’ criteria — in other words, the entire plant or the entire unit had to hit that goal or nobody got an award."

Unintended consequences

That model of safety incentives dominated until the 1990s or early 2000s, said Barr. But the unintended consequences these programs create can seriously undermine safety culture, said Peter Hollett, safety manager at Halifax Harbour Bridges in Nova Scotia.

"Say for instance, there’s a team of six guys, and they’re all going to get a $200 leather jacket if on the third month of work, none of them has had an injury," he said. "One day before the third month of work is up… Joe cuts his finger and he needs six stitches. They put peer pressure on him not to report that, because everybody in the group suffers because of his injury and his mistake. So they’re all saying, ‘Well, can you wait until Thursday and not say anything? Can you say you did that at home? Can you say it’s non-work-related?

"It creates peer pressure not to report, and it also creates a false sense of work safe, when really, they’re not all that safe — they’re just non-reporting."

All these programs do is sweep the problems under the rug, instead of bringing them to the forefront where they can be addressed, said Hollett.

The underlying problem with programs like these is they are based on the biased assumption that workers are the problem, instead of partners in a solution, said Siobhan Vipond, secretary treasurer at the Alberta Federation of Labour in Edmonton.

"We consider these programs to essentially blame the worker for the unsafe conditions. They encourage intimidation and fear and silence in the workplace, and they are very effective at preventing reporting of injuries, but they do little or nothing about the hazard or unsafe conditions," she said.

Proactive alternatives

Since the 1990s, safety incentive programs have seen the beginnings of a positive change, said Barr. Instead of focusing on lagging indicators like number of lost-time injuries, the focus is shifting to leading indicators.

"Leading indicators mean pro-activity, behaviour based, where employees are encouraged to participate in their total environment of safety processes. Some examples of pro-activity or leading indicators would be reporting near misses, volunteering to be on the safety committee, doing safety audits, safety inspections, safety suggestions — all this kind of pro-activity (workers) would get recognized for," he said.

"With the emphasis on the leading indicators, eventually the lagging indicators will take care of themselves."

Many employers are moving more toward points-based incentive programs, where employees collect safety points for proactive safety behaviours like volunteering on the safety committee, said Barr.

Another good practice that Halifax Harbour Bridges has in place is that of on-the-spot recognition, said Hollett.

"We don’t have a formal incentive program in place where you have to put in a certain set number of hours to qualify for a gift or anything along those lines," he said. "We do it very informally, and it’s on-the-spot recognition. So if I find somebody doing something, depending on what I see them doing, it could be a $50 Home Depot gift card — so far this year, I’ve spent about $500 giving out gift cards — or safety jackets, or something along those lines."

Fort McMurray, Alta.-based Fisher Powerline Construction has an annual bonus system in place that’s entirely based on individual performance, said president Roger Fisher.

"We have a yearly bonus system that’s based on attendance and safety performance, so it’s based on a percentage of the wage — the yearly straight-time hours. Myself and the safety representatives review the hours, and we review the safety performance of each individual throughout the year," he said.

They also do field inspections, and they have a safety awards program in place that’s based on peer feedback, said Fisher.

"We also have a monthly safety program where we give a gift to our safest employee out of the company, and we get the guys in the field to vote on who they think the safest employee is, and then we take a look at the numbers that come through and look at (the workers’) stats for the month."

Safety awards can work well because it’s important to recognize employees who go above and beyond, who take safety culture to heart, and who provide a positive example for their peers, said Hollett. That recognition could even be as simple as a thank-you from senior leadership.

"Recognition — like a letter from the president of the company or the CEO — goes a huge long way. It doesn’t cost the president anything, but it does show that he’s committed to safety, and it does show that he’s paying attention to safety," he said.

"My CEO right now, he’ll come around and pat us on the back and say, ‘good job, thank you very much for that.’

"That’s when you start moving safety from the head to the heart."

Other ways to engage workers

There are other ways to get workers engaged in safety culture beyond just awards or recognition, said Wright.

One way could be reinvesting any rebates or savings attained from good safety practices toward the safety budget.

"Improve an ergonomic arm. Put more money towards engineering. Reduce the packaging weight. That’s the way they should go about it — in other words, create a culture," he said. "And then any rebates we get back from that, reinvest that back into that process, rather than saying to the worker, ‘here’s a movie ticket’ or ‘here’s a coat.’ A lot of workers will say, ‘that’s pretty trivial — why don’t you air condition the building, or why don’t you buy me an ergonomic arm? Buy better safety boots?’"

Companies could even turn the old incentive model on its head: Instead of rewarding for no safety incidents, reward people for reporting potential incidents before they ever happen, he said.

"Maybe give the incentive the other way… If you report a sentinel event that’s something that potentially could kill somebody, if you report that three or four of them, we’re going to recognize you for speaking up."

Another key alternative is putting a strong focus on joint employer-employee health and safety committees, said Vipond.

"Within that we can talk about adequate training, we can talk about reporting workplace hazards without being penalized or without your co-workers being penalized," she said, adding it’s not the reporting we need to get rid of — it’s the hazards themselves.

"If they’re committed to a joint health and safety committee so that everybody has a voice, that’s a lot more meaningful at the end of the day."

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