Safety Incentives Should Target Managers!

Measure And Reward For Actions, Not Outcomes

Many of you who have read my blog articles in the past know that I am not a big believer in safety incentive programs.  Most are aimed at front-line workers and are based on injury records.   Even though OSHA has made a big deal about safety incentive programs aimed at employees, especially those that encourage under-reporting, they still proliferate workplaces everywhere.   This type of incentive program, like behavior based safety, focuses on the workers as the problem, instead of as the solution.  They disregard the fact that management designed the work, provides the equipment and tools, controls how it is performed, and establishes the norms by which all employees are measured, managed and paid.  Accidents and injuries occur in this context, so before focusing on the worker we must focus on management and the quality of their safety leadership.

I managed a safety program for a major mining machinery manufacturer that had a “measure the injuries” type of employee incentive program.  We rewarded employees for not having a reportable case and then doubled the award if their work group didn’t either.  Then, if the plant went 500,000 or 1,000,000 work hours without a lost time injury we’d hold a celebration and give everyone a nice gift.  I witnessed first-hand how employees would hide an injury, so they wouldn’t be the one that caused everyone else to lose out because of their one reportable.

Though the program did result in some significant workers compensation savings, in hindsight it was stupid of us to think that workers wouldn’t hide injuries.  What we really wanted was to create excitement about safety.   We wanted everyone to pay attention to safety procedures, follow the rules, wear their PPE, work together and help others, engage in the safety training, identify and report hazards, and to be a part of the safety solution.  So……. That’s what we should have been measuring and rewarding, not the body count!

The old way measured the absence of negatives, not the presence of positives.  Today we see articles and hear presentations at conferences about this, and why focusing on the positives is one key to creating an effective safety culture.  Focus on what you want workers to do and they will do it.  At conferences we are also hearing much more about creating a solid Safety Management System.

The Importance of Leadership

Any Safety Management System begins with the endorsement and involvement of senior management.  Their involvement includes an assessment of risks, including hazard identification and control, safety planning and providing the necessary resources required to achieve the plan.  But that’s just the start.  Putting the plan into action and holding middle and supervisory management accountable is an integral part.  Safety belongs to management, no matter how many times we say it is everyone’s responsibility. (Code for safety is everyone else’s responsibility, or the responsibility of the person who messes up!)

Seems simple enough, but most everyone who has managed a safety initiative system knows it is not.  Management is focused on cost control, resource management, lean production, output, etc.   In their world production rules, so it is the safety manager’s job to help them understand “safe production” and how it maximized results and profitability.  When they realize that “unsafe” anything, injuries and near-misses are unacceptable, safety comes to life.

In most organizations management, from the supervisor up to senior leaders, play important roles in safety.   Safety is what you do, not what you say.  It isn’t about slogans or posters, but about performance.   When performance excels and plans are achieved, managers are rewarded.  And when safety is a key part of the overall plan, good safety performance should be rewarded as well.  Unfortunately, that is not often the case.

Rewarding What Is Important

From the title of this blog post it’s clear that I believe that safety incentives should target managers and supervisors.  That’s not to say that workers should be excluded, but that awards should align with what you really want.

In the case of the mining machinery manufacturer, of course we didn’t want accidents, but instead of rewarding for the absence of the negatives (accidents) we should have rewarded for those actions that got us what we wanted.  We wanted workers to be involved in safety and work as a team, so we should have come up with actions related to involvement and teamwork and rewarded accordingly.  You get it.

Discipline is an incentive as well and should be used when necessary.  So here’s a novel thought; if we want safe production and determine that unsafe anything is unacceptable then we should align management incentives or disincentives with these performance goals.  It is about holding managers accountable for safe production.

From discussions with other safety professionals, like John Gilstrap who was the keynote speaker at the recent ASSE Region 6 PDC in Myrtle Beach, SC, we need to teach specific behaviors that we expect from management and supervisors.  Then we need to define ways to measure not just the outcomes, but their behavior as it relates to safety.  Do they just go through the motions of holding a weekly safety meeting, or do they do it with enthusiasm?  So they start every day with a thought about why safety is important?  Do they try to make it personal for their workers?  Do they know each of their workers by name and something about their family or other important focus in their life?  Can they express their genuine concern for safety?  Are they believable to the workers?  Do they encourage reporting of problems and work as a team to find solutions?  Use perception surveys or interviews to find out.

John Gilstrap talked about the fact that missteps will occur.  If rules were violated then discipline is called for, but if honest mistakes are made we have to get over it.  He also suggested that when discipline is called for we need to come down harder on managers than workers.  Managers need to get the safety message if it is ever to become a reality within the overall culture of the organization.

It is a manager’s responsibility to send workers home safe.  This is what safety is all about.  It’s not about OSHA compliance; it’s about people and their families.  I suggest you consider changing your incentives so they focus first on the actions of your managers and supervisors.  Once they believe, act, and live by the motto “Safely…. or not at all” then real safe production will occur.