Safety Incentive Programs: Do they work? Are they legal?

By: BLR and WAKEUP CALL

Safety incentive programs have been under the microscope lately. The primary concern is that programs that reward workers or teams for avoiding injury might result in employees not reporting recordable injuries. Attorney Adele Abrams explained what’s at stake and why caution is required. Keep reading for details about what you can and cannot do under the law.

safety incentives

Abrams addressed the topic of encouraging safe behaviors without encouraging under reporting or lawbreaking. She noted that OSHA is spending considerable effort and resources on this subject. In 2009, the agency launched a national emphasis program (NEP) on recordkeeping that asked questions about incentive programs based on injury rates and whether employees felt pressured not to report incidents. The administration concluded that there was “wholesale underreporting” of injuries and responded with a considerable number of citations under the NEP.

In 2012, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that found that 22 percent of manufacturers had rate-based safety incentive programs. The GAO concluded that these programs can be problematic, especially at workplaces where a strong safety culture is lacking. Also that year, OSHA issued a memo that took aim at incentive programs that could skew injury data. The memo reminded employers that they cannot discriminate against an employee for exercising the right to report an injury. (OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) also discourages these types of programs.)

The memo, signed by OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Richard E. Fairfax stated, “If employees do not feel free to report injuries or illnesses, the employers’ entire workforce is put at risk. Employers do not learn of and correct dangerous conditions that have resulted in injuries, and injured employees may not receive the proper medical attention, or the workers’ compensation benefits to which they are entitled.”

The memo describes policies and practices that could discourage reporting and could be considered unlawful discrimination. An example is programs that provide incentives for not reporting and policies that permit employers to take disciplinary action against all employees who are injured on the job, regardless of fault.

OSHA also warns employers about policies that result in employee discipline for breaking employer rules regarding the time or manner for reporting injuries. As well, the Fairfax document urges careful investigation of situations in which an employer imposes discipline because an injury resulted from violation of a safety rule by an employee.

What else does OSHA say about safety incentive programs?

According to Abrams, OSHA does not require companies to dismantle incentive programs that promote worker participation in safety activities. The following are examples of generally acceptable safety incentive activities:

  • Providing t-shirts to members of a safety committee,
  • Throwing a party to mark completion of a safety training module,
  • Offering modest rewards for suggesting ways to improve safety,
  • Rewarding individuals who participate in developing job hazard analyses,
  • Rewarding winners of a safety contest, and
  • Praising those observed working safely or properly wearing safety gear.

Abrams adds that appropriate, legal programs should:

  • Encourage desired behaviors;
  • Create incentives to work in a safe manner;
  • Develop leaders who will be good safety role models, especially for younger workers;
  • Lead to employee empowerment and improved safety and health; and
  • Ensure that workers at all levels are eligible for an incentive.

Many employers have misguided beliefs about incentives and what works. Under the category of what she calls “motivation myths,” Abrams lists:

  • I can motivate people. (In fact, people must motivate themselves.)
  • Money is a good motivator. (Other things count more.)
  • Fear is a good motivator. (Maybe, but only in the short term.)
  • What motivates me is what motivates others. (Motivation is not “one size fits all.”)

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