Is OSHA Wrong About Safety Incentive Programs?

Recently, OSHA issued a bulletin discouraging employers from using safety incentive programs, based on the premise that injuries could go unreported due to peer pressure from workers who want to win awards. Sounds reasonable, but I wonder if OSHA isn't missing the big picture.

Let's start by examining the downside of incentives, as laid out in the OSHA argument.

OSHA presumes that workers are easily dissuaded from reporting legitimate injuries. OSHA should acknowledge that hidden injuries are almost always of the minor variety, because getting treatment for a major injury outweighs any other consideration. A seriously injured worker's primary concern is always getting treatment.

The second OSHA argument is that rewarding departments that perform safely is "discriminatory" against those departments with injuries. Really? Since when is it discriminatory to reward good performance? Should all salesmen earn the same commission so as not to discriminate against those who sell less? Should successful managers be denied raises because that discriminates against managers who do not perform well? There is a significant difference between rewarding excellence and discrimination against everyone who did not perform to that level. There is a word for this kind of approach, but we'll leave that for another discussion.

Let's compare OSHA's attempts to discourage the use of incentive programs with their potential benefits.

The purpose of a good plan is to raise awareness of safe behavior, provide encouragement and motivation to perform jobs safely, and convey how important the worker's individual safety is to the company. Everything an organization does to increase the awareness and importance of safety pays off, both for the individual workers and for the company. When an organization shows that it cares about safety -- that it is the organization's highest priority -- workers take it more seriously.

Our recommendation for a safety incentive program is to make it dynamic, not static. No bingo or scratch cards, and no monthly reward added to the paycheck. No entitlements, in other words. Safety awards meetings that are attended by managers who congratulate and thank winning teams and individuals for being safe, that provide recognition and show appreciation, are wonderfully effective. Acknowledgement of a job well done goes a long way to providing encouragement and motivation to keep up the good work. Incentives and rewards are an important piece of these programs, but when recognition is given, they are not the focal point. Dynamic meetings send a clear message on how important safety is. Simply telling workers to be safe, no matter how sincere, is not enough; every employer says that. On the other hand, demonstrating how important it is takes safety to a higher priority level, and that is the basis for greater awareness.

My biggest objection to OSHA's recommendation is this: OSHA completely ignores the benefits of injuries that don't occur! An effective incentive program that increases awareness and raises the priority level of safety always leads to fewer injuries, yet OSHA overlooks this benefit. If the agency's premise were true and a minor injury did go unreported, how does that compare to 10 other injuries that never happened due to greater awareness?

The goal of any organization should be to strengthen the safety culture, and raising the priority level of safety through the use of dynamic safety recognition and rewards program is one of the most effective ways of accomplishing that.

Joe Stevens founded Bridge Safety Consultants in 2003 to provide companies and organizations with a resource to help them strengthen their safety culture. The company conducts a safety culture audit, then designs and manages safety recognition and rewards program, with bilingual monthly safety meetings. He can be contacted at [email protected]. To see a typical meeting in action, visit

Posted by Joe Stevens on Apr 01, 2013

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