I have been following the 'attitude versus behavior' debate in the safety industry for many years. Although I tend toward the 'attitudinal' way of thinking, I certainly admit and understand that a safe attitude may not always translate into safe behavior. And as far as behavior-based safety is concerned, 'attitudinalists' seem to be losing the battle. However, a new controversy seems to have begun to take its place - the value of safety incentive programs. Is their success determined by 'behavior' or 'attitude?' The "Draft OSHA Policy on Employee Incentive Programs at VPP (Voluntary Protection Program) Sites" states in part: "For example, an employer might have a system that provides cash or other prizes to employees whenever the facility goes a certain length of time without a lost-workday incident. While this is certainly an admirable goal and a cause for celebration, the program also unfortunately provides a disincentive for workers to report injuries and illnesses for fear of causing themselves and their fellow workers to forgo the award."

Any facility whose safety culture tolerates non-reporting needs more help than any safety incentive program can provide. When the value of a safety award becomes greater than respect for safety, respect for health and respect for human life, that facility may wish to take a long, hard look at the message they are sending to their employees. They may also wish to re-evaluate the type of program and incentives that they are using. I recently heard of a company that promised $100 cash to all employees if they exceeded their previous record of days without a lost-time incident. Within days of attaining the record, one of the employees was injured and reported that injury. He was ostracized by his fellow employees and ended up quitting.

The issues at play

There are two issues in this example. The first is about using cash as an incentive. If I miss out on a cash award because someone else is injured, I may see this as having that $100 somehow 'stolen' from me. One hundred dollars is a significant amount of money (to some people, at least) and employees have probably spent a lot of time imagining what they will do with it when they get it. Then, because of someone else's actions, they lose that money!

The second issue is about the underlying safety culture in a facility where this situation occurs. Making money or an award more important than safety, making it an end in itself rather than a means to an end for a safer workplace, is intolerable. When employees fail to report injuries or illnesses for fear of reprisal by their co-workers they are exhibiting the 'overall mentality' of the workforce at their facility. They have gotten the message loud and clear that their safety is not nearly as important as the award, the money, the record or the facility TIR. And that is a direct reflection of the attitudes (and behavior) of top management and supervisory personnel.

Reward the positives

I work closely with my clients to design the rules for their safety incentive programs. Rules are typically written to give some points for individual safe behavior, team safe behavior and overall facility safe behavior. But I encourage my clients not to stop there. I am currently running programs that give points for reporting injuries and incidents, give points for reporting near misses, give points for interventions and behavioral observations. We give points for wearing seat belts, making safety suggestions, conducting meetings, doing audits, etc.

Companies that reward employees for taking an active role in the safety effort are exhibiting a safety culture that is far removed from one which 'tacitly approves' of hiding accidents. (Dare I say that they have a more positive safety attitude?) They understand that the true value of an incentive program is the motivational and recognition aspect and don't see it as a way to bribe their employees to work more safely.

Let's face it, folks. Virtually no one is going to take the extra step for safety just to get an umbrella. Virtually no one is going to get on a behavioral safety observation team just for two points toward a cordless phone. They do those things because they are motivated from within to be safe. They view safety as a responsibility to themselves, their co-workers, their families and their company. The safety award itself is tangible proof of their caring, their concern and their involvement. It's a way that the company reminds its employees of the importance of safety. A way that the company encourages and rewards safe behavior.

If it has become a way to encourage non-reporting, hiding injuries and near misses, and ostracizing injured employees, perhaps it's not the program that is at fault. Perhaps we need to look deeper, rather than pointing a finger at the incentive program.

Be an educated customer

An incentive awards program is really no different than, say, a respirator. It's simply another tool to assist in attaining the overall goal of safe and healthy workers. There are good ones on the market and not so good ones, just as there are good respirators and not so good respirators. Most companies do considerable research before they invest in respirators. They want to find the best one to meet the needs of their particular employees and facility. They carefully train their employees in respirator care, cleaning and use.

But incentive programs are often thrown together at the last minute or bought on the basis of lowest cost or the cutest gimmick. A safety award is sometimes chosen as the 'path of least resistance.' It's much easier to say, "We'll give everyone a hundred dollars or a jacket if we meet our goal," than it is to develop an overall program for motivating, recognizing and rewarding employees. A respirator that does not fit the employee is not going to help him a bit. And an incentive program that does not 'fit' is not going to work either.

A safety incentive awards program is not 'the answer' to the safety challenge. It is not a substitute for training, safety meetings, equipment, management involvement and commitment. You need an incentive program to create a safety culture that must already be in place before incentives have any valuable effect. And a safety culture is an 'attitudinal thing' that translates into a 'behavioral thing.' When you can get those two aspects of safety working hand-in-hand, there will be no more fingers left to point at incentive programs as the 'bad guys' of safety.