Viewpoint: OSHA Questions Some Incentives; So Should We

By Jonathan A. Jacobi, CSP May 7, 2012

A recent memo from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) focused on employer safety initiatives that could discourage employees from reporting injuries and could discriminate against workers who notify employers about injuries and illnesses. Specifically, OSHA regional administrators and whistle-blower program managersare instructed to look for violations involving discipline and incentives.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis testified March 12, 2012, before a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that the agency does not intend to issue citations for employer safety programs in general. But when an internal memo is made this visible, we should consider it a warning shot.

It’s not a new warning. OSHA and industry professionals have wrestled for decades over which safety incentives help prevent incidents and which encourage underreporting. Understanding the difference is not just a compliance issue: Badly designed incentives produce bad data, which drives bad decision-making and increased risk. Well-designed incentives result in world-class safety performance and other business benefits.

In two decades as a safety professional and consultant, I’ve seen the important role that HR professionals play in shaping corporate culture, including defining and evaluating performance incentives. HR professionals are well positioned to “coach the coaches” and provide guidance to everyone from frontline supervisors to C-level executives on how to plan for and inspire improved performance. With that in mind, let’s use the OSHA memorandum to explore some concerns about safety discipline and incentives, and then discuss cultural and coaching practices that help prevent incidents.

Better, More Accurate and Timely Data

A company must be able to tailor its safety management approach to its culture and business realities. On first glance, an OSHA edict on safety discipline and incentives may seem limiting—but read the details, and it becomes clear that OSHA is not dictating so much as providing general direction on gray areas that may be problematic. OSHA’s goal is a good one for any company:better, more accurate and timely data to drive better decisions, prevent incidents and improve performance.

The memorandum’s legal center is Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and related whistle-blower laws that protect a worker’s right to report an injury or illness without fear of retaliation. It identifies four general practices that “could discourage reporting and could constitute unlawful discrimination” (emphasis mine):

  • I’m pretty sure no company has an overtly stated policy to “discipline all employees who are injured, regardless of fault.” However, if most or all employees who get injured are disciplined, assumptions and practices of the safety management system should be reviewed. Most human performance issues can be linked to factors not directly within an injured worker’s control. A proper response in many instances is not punishment but instead consoling or coaching employees who were “set up” for failure.
  • Reporting procedures or requirements that are “unreasonable, unduly burdensome or enforced with unjustifiably harsh sanctions” are potentially discriminatory, as OSHA points out, and they are likely to result in underreporting. For example, requiring all injuries to be reported during the shift when they occur is limiting, because there are legitimate cases when a worker isn’t initially aware of an injury or its severity.
  • While acknowledging the need to “enforce legitimate workplace safety rules,” OSHA draws attention to employers who discipline employees for violating a rule if they report an injury but don’t enforce that rule when there is no associated injury or loss.
  • In terms of incentives, OSHA’s concern is programs that intentionally or unintentionally “provide employees an incentive to not report injuries.” Their example is a bonus system that rewards a team if no one reports injuries for the year. If the bonus is significant, it creates personal and peer pressure to hide incidents.

Preventing incidents requires complete, accurate reporting of incidents, near misses, potential hazards and concerns. The problem with the aforementioned practices is that they do just the opposite—discourage reporting.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a system of rewards and consequences to ensure accountability. But you should be vigilant in making sure that system doesn’t have the unintended effect of intimidating employees and managers to underreport in order to reap rewards or avoid punishments.

The first and third areas OSHA mentions touch on another important issue. A discipline-oriented system tends to assume that individual employees are solely to blame for incidents, when the opposite is true. While human performance is partly a factor in 80 to 90 percent of incidents, the vast majority involve other predisposing factors such as inaccurate and confusing work procedures, time pressures, conflicting priorities and other organizational weaknesses.

The Human Performance Improvement Handbook(Department of Energy, June 2009) is a valuable resource for improving safety through error reduction. One useful concept is avoiding a “Blame Cycle.” When human error is identified as the sole cause of an incident that results in discipline and/or corrective actions, it reduces trust and openness. If workers are reluctant to report concerns because they will be blamed, underlying system flaws go uncorrected, controls remain inadequate—and more human errors occur.

Incentive programs can create their own cycle of underreporting if the rewards can be attained by ignoring problems rather than fixing them. OSHA noted that potential problems “may increase when management or supervisory bonuses are linked to lower reported injury rates.” That’s not to say we shouldn’t reward managers for safety performance. The key is not to measure “performance” only by lagging indicators.

Smarter Incentives, a Just Culture and Good Coaching

After warning about potential negatives, OSHA’s memorandum specifies positive incentives that “promote worker participation in safety-related activities, such as identifying hazards or participating in investigations of injuries, incidents or near misses.”

Participatory incentives are more effective and drive improved performance. They help create the opposite of the Blame Cycle—what the Human Performance Improvement Handbook calls a “Just Culture.” In a Just Culture, different behaviors that contribute to an incident or near miss are met with certain organizational responses:

  • Human Error—an honest mistake or lapse—is seen, to quote renowned performance expert Sidney Dekker, Ph.D., as “the effect or symptom of deeper trouble.” The response is not to blame individuals but to console them, then focus on the processes and systems that led to the mistake, including clarifying procedures, improving training, looking at environmental and design issues, and so on.
  • At-Risk Behavior involves a choice—but one based on not recognizing risk or believing that a behavior was justified by another factor (e.g., to increase productivity). The response here is coaching, including removing incentives for at-risk behaviors, creating or reinforcing incentives for positive behavior, and raising awareness.
  • Reckless Behavior involves a willful disregard for established rules in spite of unmistakable risk. Here and here alone, punishment becomes the appropriate response.

This approach expands accountability to all who design, build, manage and interact within the system. The organizational focus on context and intent, while reserving punishment for willfully reckless cases, helps employees feel safe in reporting near misses, hazards and concerns. Add some participatory incentives and you get a steady stream of reliable, real-time data that helps management identify and address systemic weaknesses.

In a Just Culture, everyone sees that there are fair, logical connections between system inputs and outputs. A Just Culture empowers the entire team to tap into cross-functional synergies that will never be realized if management is busy blaming employees and employees are busy resenting management.

In closing, a few words on coaching. Some of the most important interactions impacting safety performance involve one-on-one and small-group coaching. What elevates coaching effectiveness is a subject for entire books, but in the context of this article, one critical element is mind-set. A coach with a compulsive need to assert authority and who relies on intimidation is inevitably going to create a “Blame Cycle”—a losing proposition for everyone. Good coaches focus on understanding the whole system and not just when there’s an incident. A good coach defines expectations and challenges players to achieve high standards. Just as importantly, in the workplace an effective coach gives employees what they need to succeed: training, mentoring, motivation, better tools and support in identifying and removing obstacles.

One other coaching activity that is particularly relevant for HR professionals involves bridging the gap between senior executives and front-line workers. That can involve activities such as translating messages to avoid unintentionally discouraging reporting and helping the C-suite understand the long-term payoff associated with complete, accurate reporting practices. Be mindful that there might be a short-term bump in lagging indicators before improvements kick in. Coaching senior executives to stay the course is critical.

Finally, take steps to spread this message throughout your organization: “We’re not doing this for OSHA. We’re doing this because it’s right, because we want to protect each other, and because it leads to better business performance all around.”

Jonathan A. Jacobi, CSP, is senior EHS consultant at UL PureSafety. He has more than two decades of employee health and safety experience, is a certified safety professional (CSP), construction health and safety technician (CHST), and OSHA-authorized outreach trainer for construction and general industry. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Occupational Safety and Health from Murray State University in Kentucky.


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