Can incentive pull people together?

May 24, 2000
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Workers at General Ribbon Corporation have been playing bingo every day for four years now. Each day the typewriter ribbon, toner and inkjet plant in Chatsworth, Calif., goes without an accident, managers throw two dollars into the bingo jackpot. Work teams that go six months without an accident reap extra rewards, as do individuals who work three years injury-free. If an injury occurs, the jackpot is wiped out. But if everyone stays safe, a winner can take home as much as $450.

For the price of a stack of bingo cards, markers and numbers and the jackpot outlay -about $100,000 a year for nine separate games played on three shifts among 400 workers- General Ribbon has cut its accident rate nearly 90 percent, and shaved about a half-million dollars off annual workers’ compensation premiums since 1992, according to Safety Coordinator Matt Carman.

Plus, the game gives a boost to the plant safety culture. Before bingo, accident investigations usually drew comments like, "I knew that guy was going to hurt himself," says Carman. Now workers correct each other’s unsafe acts. Carman even believes the incentive program helped keep morale stable during layoffs in 1995.

Miraculous motivation

There’s no denying that bingo games and other contests that offer cash, cookouts, gifts and vacation days to safety-minded workers help many employers cut comp costs. The testimonials of incentives believers abound: ·
  • A Michigan metal stamping auto parts firm that once sent members of its roughneck crew to the hospital every week cut its accident rate in half one year after buying into an incentives plan; ·
  • A Houston maker of oil well packers reaped a 46-to-one return on investment after running an incentives game for a year-and-a-half; ·
  • A Wisconsin ready-mix concrete producer attributes a $13,000 insurance dividend and a noticeable change in employee attitudes to its new incentive contest.

Incentives seem to work miracles. But critics contend these incentive programs work by merely creating the illusion of safety improvements. They argue that workers are intimidated from reporting accidents. Peer pressure and the promise of prizes discourage workers from seeking medical treatment or filing comp claims. Some opponents even warn that pitting workers or departments against each other can raise tensions among an already stressed-out work force.

Matt Carman disagrees. At General Ribbon, not reporting an accident is punishable by being kicked out of the game. And the contest seems to have pulled workers together as a team, not pushed them apart. But, he admits, workers with their eyes on a prize can be overzealous: He once had to write up a harassment report when an injured employee was badgered by a co-worker for spoiling the jackpot.

Believers vs. bashers

Listening to the debate between believers and non-believers can be as confusing as an argument about religion. Each side sounds convincing, but the lack of scientific data to prove or disprove their claims keeps the debate going in circles. This article explores the incentives debate and offers tips for getting the most out of what is a very popular safety strategy.

The $18 billion incentives industry -including programs that motivate employee behavior in safety, sales, and productivity, as well as consumer behaviors- is growing about 7 percent annually, according to a Gallup Survey contracted by Sony Electronics’ Special Market Sales Division. No statistics exist to show what portion of the incentives industry is job safety-related. But Karen Renk, executive director of the trade group Incentives Manufacturers Representatives Association, says her members are moving more aggressively into the safety market. And that means the debate over incentives is likely to heat up.

Here’s how the argument goes back and forth: Some safety engineering experts say people who sell incentive plans are out to make a buck on a gimmick.

Incentive marketers say technical types can’t stand seeing non-scientific approaches used in their domain. Some labor leaders say companies that use incentives are copping out on finding real fixes for hazards. Employers say unions don’t like incentives because they take away their control -laborers would rather go for the jackpot than file a grievance.

It's in the execution

But on two points, both sides agree: Poorly managed incentive programs can be bad news, and well thought-out ones can be valuable.

Seth Marshall, who sells Safety Pays, the bingo game used by General Ribbon and 2,500 other companies across the country, acknowledges there are some dangerous incentive programs out there. "There are certainly incentives that negatively reinforce behavior," he says. But a good concept shouldn’t be thrown out just because some programs are poorly executed, he argues.

Safety engineer and risk control manager JoAnn Sullivan, assistant vice president at Alexander & Alexander of Arizona, can fire off a list of reasons not to use incentives. But, she says, under certain conditions, an incentive program that positively reinforces safe behavior and attitudes can be effective. Here are pointers the pros give for success with incentives: Incentives alone do not a safety program make. An incentive game is not a substitute for a safety program. "Believe it or not, some people think it is," says JoAnn Sullivan. The fact that you use one and your accidents go down does not mean you’re off the hook, she says.

Lansing, Mich., auto parts maker Trumark, Inc., introduced an incentive contest the same time it stepped up housekeeping, began addressing substance abuse at the plant, and increased training for its 200-person staff. Richard Boughner, the local United Auto Workers safety representative, says the contest to win pizza lunches, cookouts and money is what injected a team spirit into a diverse work force. But the combined programs are what improved overall safety.

"Incentives aren’t the magic button. If that’s all you do it’s not going to work," says Boughner.

Empower workers to manage the incentive program. Workers should not only choose the type of rewards that suit them best, but they should design the program and run it, Sullivan advises. (For prizes that motivate, see box). "I don’t run the incentive program, the workers do," says Richard Parliman, employee relations director at TIW Corporation in Houston. "If they want to change something, the committee gets together. If their idea sounds feasible, we’ll try it."

At Wisconsin Valley Concrete Products, union and non-union laborers and managers sitting on a safety committee settle questions on contest rules, says Thomas Hunn, human resources director at the ready-mix concrete manufacturer. As a newcomer to the company in 1994, Hunn says he noticed room for improvement in the safety culture, but was wary about forcing anything on the work force. So, he set up a safety committee to implement an incentives program. "It got people thinking and started a slow change in the mentality," he says.

Give the work force time to buy into the plan, Hunn advises: "Employees have to trust that the incentives game is not just a fad."

Don’t discourage workers from reporting accidents or near misses. Matt Carman says his workers were going to the hospital for wounds that first aid could treat. He educated workers on wellness and gave them pointers on self-treatment -like when to use a cold pack and when to use heat.

But Sullivan warns that you don’t want workers feeling pressured to treat their own injuries: you’re in big trouble, for instance, if you get someone handling a bloodborne pathogens case on their own and not decontaminating properly.

Also, workers can lose out by not reporting injuries right away, Sullivan points out. If a worker hurts his arm but doesn’t want to jeopardize the jackpot, two days later when he realizes it’s fractured he’ll have a hard time filing a comp claim.

Sullivan recommends a program that gives incentives for reporting near misses, the same way others reward safety suggestions.

Wisconsin Valley Concrete’s Hunn says workers have become more vigilant about reporting accidents since the company implemented a new policy. Workers who violate the injury reporting rule are disciplined and eliminated from the incentive contest.

Don’t isolate safety. Include quality and attendance measures as part of the incentive program to keep safety from being compartmentalized, suggests a total quality management enthusiast. For instance, qualifying for an award might require workers to attend safety meetings, complete their training, wear their PPE, and conduct inspections when asked.

This way, you can also avoid awarding incentive prizes to people co-workers think are unsafe. 3M Company ditched its old safety incentive program which drew ten workers’ names at year’s end from a list of those who had no lost-time accidents. Winners didn’t always have the reputation for being the safest workers, and the rewards seemed unfair to the team.

Offer awards that motivate, not prizes that paralyze. One plant that awarded cruises and vacations in lotteries for accident-free days ended up with workers’ spouses calling them up at work to keep the pressure on. At another company, the winner of a drawing for a new truck at the end of the year attracted co-workers’ ire because he had only been with the company a few months.

Bigger prizes can be bigger incentives to not report accidents and near misses. "If you have too strong an incentive program going on, people are going to get terrified and not report anything," says safety and health consultant Jan Thomas.

On the other hand, the value of the prize depends on your population. Company jackets or plaques might be appreciated by one work force but seen as a laughable gimmick by another, says Thomas, president of Circle Safety & Health Consultants in Gum Springs, Va. And it would be silly to offer health club memberships as rewards to loading dock workers who already have great muscles, she says.

In fact, Thomas says, incentive games don’t necessarily have to include prizes. She offers clients an incentive program idea that positively reinforces safe behavior for the cost of an index card. Her game works like a chain letter -one worker documents another’s safe behavior and passes the card along until it reaches the supervisor’s desk at day’s end. It reminds people to look out for each other and motivates them to take care of their own behavior, Thomas says. And that, after all, is what a safety incentive is supposed to do.

The pros & cons of contests

  • · PRO: ·
  • Our workers have pulled together around the incentive program. They jump to assist one another with heavy workloads, and keep an eye out for each other’s safety like they never did before. They even buy each other lunch when they win the jackpot. ·
  • Incentive plans have made workers take on responsibility for safety. They are more cognizant of hazards that management might have overlooked, and they make suggestions and help find solutions to safety problems. ·
  • Our incentive program doesn’t discourage workers from reporting accidents. In fact, our company policy says workers who don’t report accidents or injuries will be disciplined. ·

  • CON: ·
  • Peer pressure is a stronger motivator than your company policy. Workers won’t report an accident if it means letting down everybody in the game, or becoming the target of their co-workers’ frustration. Incentive games really just pit workers against one another and raise tensions in already stressful work environments. ·
  • Incentive programs are used by companies who want a Band-Aid solution. They’re just a way to make workers more careful around unsafe conditions that the company should eliminate. ·
  • Incentive programs only motivate workers to hide accidents and near misses, by bribing them with cash or prizes. A safety manager can’t do an effective job if everyone is burying the evidence.

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