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Posted on September 20th, 2016 by Mike Schmidt in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence
“You must not discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee for reporting a work-related injury or illness.” –29 CFR 1904.35(b)(1)(iv)
OSHA’s new rules on keeping track of work-related injuries have created a torrent of concern throughout the American workplace. One amendment in particular, the addition of paragraph (iv) to 1904.35(b)(1) has created a special firestorm—about parties.
The words in the new paragraph are hard to disagree with. Don’t fire someone for reporting a work-related injury or illness. That shouldn’t be hard to understand. And while you’re at it, don’t discriminate against someone for reporting a work-related injury or illness. That should make sense, too.
Just the same, OSHA issues trade releases several times a year about companies that fired personnel, or demoted them, or re-assigned them to the worst jobs in the company in retaliation for reporting work-related injuries or illnesses. It’s not that employees cannot be fired or demoted, or that the worst jobs in the company don’t need to be done; it’s that doing any of these things immediately following the report of an injury or illness has the unavoidable appearance of retaliation, something of which OSHA takes a very dim view.
OSHA also takes a very dim view of rewarding employees for not reporting an injury or illness.
OSHA has long been suspicious of incentive programs that reward workers for achieving low rates of reported injury and illnesses. While some employers may see bonuses, time off, parties, and other rewards as means to reduce injury and illness rates, OSHA has seen them as means to discourage reporting. Their concern, which is supported at least anecdotally, is that workers will be pressured by their peers to not report injuries that jeopardize group rewards, and in the case of individual rewards, will make a personal cost-benefit judgment regarding the reward they are giving up by reporting an injury.
As a result, OSHA has now made it explicitly clear in the preamble to its amended reporting regulation that “It is a violation for an employer to use an incentive program to take adverse action, including denying a benefit, because an employee reports a work-related injury or illness.”
The same OSHA document, however, goes out of its way to identify incentive programs that would pass muster. “OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) guidance materials refer to a number of positive incentives, including providing t-shirts to workers serving on safety and health committees; offering modest rewards for suggesting ways to strengthen safety and health; or throwing a recognition party at the successful completion of company-wide safety and health training.”
We should conclude, then, that lagging indicators such as injury rates should not be the basis of incentive programs but that leading indicators such as the number of hazards identified and addressed should. It is not the incentives that OSHA has a problem with, but the behaviors being incentivized.
While OSHA does not want incentive programs based on low injury rates, because it would suppress reporting incidents, we certainly don’t want an incentive program based on encouraging reporting incidents, because it would, well, encourage incidents on which to report. Logically, we don’t want an incentive program based on reporting near misses either. The only difference between a near miss and an incident is the outcome, which comes down to luck. Encouraging reporting of near misses could have the effect of encouraging near misses, which increases the probability of an actual incident.
But we want people to report both near misses and incidents, even while we want fewer of them. Why? Because reporting near misses and accidents is a way of recognizing hazards. It is not until we recognize a hazard that we can do something about it. What we want to incentivize is recognizing hazards.
Incentivizing hazard recognition
Consider group or individual goals or targets for safety suggestions. Reward them when they meet their goals. You will want to decide the criteria for accepting suggestions; the criteria should probably include describing how the suggestion improves safety.
There could also be special rewards for submitting especially good suggestions, perhaps judged on the basis of whether your organization decides they should be implemented.
When I review incident investigation reports and near miss forms, too many recommendations are essentially nothing more than “don’t do that again.” Consider whether your incident investigation form explicitly encourages making suggestions or recommendations that will reduce the likelihood of a similar event from occurring again in the future. If not, you may want to modify your forms or improve the training on completing the forms so that it clear what is needed. Suggestions and recommendations on incident investigation reports that are aimed at reducing future likelihood could count toward the goals and incentive programs above. That way, it is not the near miss that is encouraged, but the suggestion that it prompts.
Incentivizing safe behavior
Consider a safety walk-through program, something with a checklist or rubric that publicizes the things you will be looking for. Conduct each walk-through at random times and reward achieving certain scores. I suggest that the reward be for achieving a score, rather than conducting the program as a competition because in a competition, the groups that win—that are “the safest”—will tend to be the groups that always win, and you don’t want other groups to simply throw their hands up in resignation. Make sure that the items on the checklist are leading indicators, not lagging indicators. These might include housekeeping, completing safety activities such as safety inspections, pre-job briefs, and tool-box talks. The walk-through should be conducted by someone perceived as objective, and ideally, by someone at the top of the organization.
Make sure that management at the top of the organization is committed and vocal in their support of the incentive program. Frequent unconditional reinforcement from the top will do more to make a safety program work than all the prizes in the world. Unconditional? That means never making excuses for unsafe behaviors, even when those behaviors further some other company objective.
There are two important parts of any incentive program: determining what behavior to incentivize and then, determining what rewards will incentivize that behavior. OSHA has made clear the behaviors they do and do not want incentivized. Make sure that you are not incentivizing the wrong behaviors, inadvertently or otherwise. OSHA has also given some suggestions on the kinds of rewards they believe will incentivize that behavior. If parties work in your organization, then party on!
All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.
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Principal, Bluefield Process Safety, LLC
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