There is no doubt that companies which prioritize the safety of their workers reap numerous positive outcomes. Safe and healthy workplaces have lower rates of injury, illness, and accidental death, as well as lower rates of absenteeism and turnover. It is also documented that workplaces with an enshrined culture of safety are more productive, and that employees within those workplaces have greater morale and dedication for their work. However, what is the most effective way to create a pervasive culture of workplace safety? It is clear that this is an issue which requires urgent and ongoing attention. The Workplace Injury, Disease and Fatality Statistics Provincial Summary released by Alberta OHS reported 116 workplace fatalities and 44,543 disabling injury claims in 2016.
It’s intuitive that if workers were to display safety-conscious behaviour 100% of the time, there would be reduced rates of workplace incidents. However, given workplaces’ fixation on productivity and efficiency, as well potential confounding factors such as workplace culture and peer pressure, it is difficult to ensure that this happens. In an attempt to address these issues, many Albertan companies have adopted safety incentive programs. These programs reward workers (such as with gift cards, cash bonuses, company merchandise or public accolades) for safe behaviour. However, there is significant debate over whether these programs have a positive, negative or negligible affect on workplace safety.
Incentive programs can measure success in different ways. Rate-based programs measure tangible outcomes, such as the number of reports of unsafe conditions, or the number of work place injuries. For example, a group of workers may be rewarded if no incidents occur during a pre-dictated time span. Less incidents are assumed to be correlated with a safer workplace. However, this can be a problematic assumption. It is documented that incentive programs which measure success via an absence of reports of unsafe conditions can act as a disincentive to workers considering reporting, as safety bonuses will be at stake. For example, if there was to be a monetary prize offered to any workers who were not injured, might this not act as a disincentive to report injuries? The potential pitfalls of a rate-based program are illustrated in the case of a BP refinery explosion in Texas City in 2005, where 15 workers were killed and 180 were injured. An investigation into the contributing factors of the explosion revealed that the rate-based safety incentive program which the BP refinery had in place in fact discouraged safe practices, as workers feared backlash from management if they were to report dangerous practices or conditions. In response to this, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the US released an official statement stressing that employees had a right to report safety issues, and that it was discriminatory to institute programs or practices which acted against, or discouraged, these rights.
The other main type of safety incentive program is a leading indicators, or behaviour-based program. These programs are process based rather than results based, in that they focus on influencing present behaviours of employees, rather than examining the incident or injury rates which have already occurred in a company. Examples may include rewarding workers for identifying potential improvements in practices, for reporting dangerous conditions, or even for routine workplace practices such as wearing correct Personal Protective Equipment at the job site or attending safety meetings. The American manufacturing company Olin, for example, introduced a behaviour-based incentive program to address their problematically low 60% attendance rate at safety meetings, and increased attendance to 100%. In another case, employees of American company Heartland Foods received incentives for submitting “close call” forms. Workers’ Compensation costs five years after this program was introduced had been halved.
Due to widely documented positive results such as these, programs which are behaviour-based are considered less problematic and more successful than rate-based programs. Despite this, many question whether employees should get a reward for fulfilling their safety responsibilities, or whether this should instead simply be a requirement of their job.
Psychologically speaking, it has been documented that motivation for an activity can either be intrinsic or extrinsic. If you are intrinsically motivated towards a goal, you are motivated internally by a belief that you are engaging in behaviours and activities which are correct and worthwhile on a personal level. For example, an employee might be committed to safe practices for reasons related to their own wellbeing, or for continuing to provide for family members in the long term. On the other hand, it is extensively documented that if you are motivated to do something by external factors which are outside of your control, you are less likely to maintain these practices in the long term. Incentive programs run the risk of disrupting individuals genuine intrinsic inclination towards safe practices, and shifting motivation towards shorter-term and less sincere goals such as receiving monetary prizes.
There is no doubt that the issue of safety incentives in workplaces remains divisive. There are extensive positive results documented by many companies around the world who have utilized safety incentives in the workplace, but on the other hand the numerous pitfalls of incentive programs have in some cases led to disastrous consequences. If utilized, employers should ensure that workplace incentive programs are behaviour-based, rather than rate-based. Most importantly incentive programs should only supplement, rather than stand in place of, a comprehensive safety program, which remains the key component of ensuring safe workplace practices.