In early August, Marthe Kent, director, OSHA Office of Regulatory Analysis, submitted an interim status report on the agency's research on safety incentive programs to the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Hazard (NACOSH). The report did not address some of the pertinent questions surrounding the effectiveness of incentive programs in promoting safety and health in the workplace.

"People expected a definitive account of what is a good or bad safety incentive program," says Kent, who is heading the research. "But that is not what we were asked to do - we were asked to review the literature, not evaluate the evidence."

The interim report consists of a 25-page annotated bibliography of 170 articles, books, pamphlets, law case results, Web site ads for incentive programs, behavioral and management feedback studies and trade literature on the subject. The bibliography spans works across four decades, from the 1960s to today.

Back in the fall of 1997, NACOSH was concerned that the promise of large cash rewards and other prizes in some safety incentive programs was encouraging workers to hide injuries and illnesses. Not only that but when these rewards and incentives involved groups rather than individuals the pressure to not disclose an accident increased even more. As a result, the committee had requested OSHA to study the facts and data available.

According to Kent, NACOSH's main interest in this literature review is to find out what kind of research has been most effective on this subject so that it can either ask NIOSH or any other agency to fund a similar study.

"I see no dominant trend," she continued. What she has found is a lot of conflicting information, "overwhelmingly anecdotal," with little systematic or scientific data.

Overall, it appears there are two types of programs - those that set targets to achieve low injury rates and those that award gifts and/or points toward gifts and prizes for attending safety meetings, doing hazard analyses, reporting near misses and practicing safe behaviors. Of the two, Kent said, "people seem to have more faith in the second type, the line between the two often seems to get blurred. It is very confusing."

A lot of the articles indicate that rewards create an atmosphere of mistrust in the workplace. Rewards that should really serve to motivate workers to care about their own well-being and the safety of their co-workers, end up distracting attention away from these goals.

Interestingly, it also is obvious, according to Kent, that companies with good safety incentive programs already have a strong safety and health program in place. A good safety and health program has employee involvement, hazard analysis and injury reporting.

Will OSHA consider passing a safety incentive program standard? No, Kent says. It is more likely it will be part of the safety and health standard. It is not in the plans right now, but the safety and health standard will require such elements as injury reporting, employee protection, and management response - all elements necessary for a good safety incentive program.

In fact, OSHA's guidelines and recommendations for safety incentive programs at its Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) sites, emphasize the value of psychological rewards over large monetary ones. According to the guidelines, programs which recognize employee involvement in safety related activities and reward safe behaviors are more acceptable to the agency than those that are based upon reducing injuries and accidents.

Vic Anapolle, of The Anapolle Group, says what's important is not the size of the prize but the structure of the program and honesty of the management. This is why he advises his clients to involve people in order to create a sense of trust and understanding. "Don't build up employee expectation that there will be a windfall," he says.

According to Kent, the literature review report will be finished in October, in time for her to present it at the next NACOSH meeting.