Does the fear of not receiving a reward offered through a safety incentive program discourage workers from reporting workplace accidents to their employers? Do workers hide injuries incurred on the job because they don’t want to be perceived as causing their coworkers to miss a lunch designed to reward all workers for maintaining a safe work environment?

For more than 20 years, safety experts, occupational health practitioners, government officials and incentive program providers have debated these questions and others, but definitive answers remain elusive. The easy answer is “maybe.” The best answer, based on many studies and volumes of statistical analysis, appears to be “not necessarily,” especially if safety incentive programs are properly designed and implemented by professionals who understand the nature and role of motivation, recognition and rewards.

Promotional products and incentive professionals know that safety incentive programs are multi-faceted recognition programs designed to motivate employees and/or contractors to work safely, drive safely, and work ergonomically in their work environment. A properly designed safety incentive program not only rewards safe work, but also promotes proactive behavior such as making safety suggestions, identifying hazards and joining safety committees.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) started questioning safety incentive programs in the late 1990s as the agency proposed what was termed the “Ergonomics Rule.” It became effective in late 2000 and subsequently was rescinded by Congress in early 2001.

In forming the Ergonomics Rule, OSHA began to challenge the efficacy of certain types of safety incentive programs that focused on what is known as rate-based or outcome-based measurements. These programs reward workers when zero or low incidences of accidents or injuries are reported over a specific period, and OSHA had supported such programs for many years. OSHA later changed course and began to cite industry experts’ opinions that workers might under report injuries or accidents to receive a promised reward for an accident-free workplace.

When the Ergonomics Rule first surfaced, and again in early 2016, the Incentive Federation, Inc. (IFI) registered its opposition to OSHA’s contention that safety incentives are likely to discourage reporting of injuries or illnesses unless the programs are behavior-based instead of results-based.

In a pointed letter to OSHA in May 2016, IFI’s legal counsel, George Delta, Esq., stated, “Given the considerable benefits of well-designed safety incentive programs, there is no justification for OSHA to place a stigma on all such programs merely because it believes that some programs might lead to the underreporting of workplace injuries. Doing so is unwarranted, unjustified, unsupported by empirical (rather than anecdotal) evidence, and would not produce the result that OSHA desires—the reduction of injuries in the workplace. If anything, eliminating or discouraging the use of well-designed safety incentive programs is likely to lead to a more dangerous workplace.”

Over time, the IFI has become more concerned that OSHA’s statements have produced a chilling effect on safety incentive programs that are designed to decrease the number of workplace accidents and to ensure that safety hazards are minimized.

OSHA’s strong language criticizing safety incentive programs has prompted some companies to discontinue safety incentive programs entirely for fear of being cited by OSHA as being in violation of OSHA’s non-discrimination language or its record-keeping standards.

Other companies have revamped their programs to focus on incentives that reward behavior-based programs, or what is termed “leading indicators,” that focus on safety-related behaviors and activities. These indicators include such things as reporting safety violations, making safety suggestions, taking steps to remedy unsafe situations and volunteering for safety committees. Some companies use a mixture of results-based programs and behavior-based programs.

Incentive industry practitioners with experience in developing safety programs for their clients concur that OSHA has had a negative impact on these programs. Brian Galonek, CPIM, president of Massachusetts-based All Star Incentive Marketing and IFI board director, states,“Poorly designed programs can produce poor results, but OSHA has not spent enough time considering what a properly designed program should look like. Stating that they like leading indicators is fine, but they fall way short of advising on what a proper program is.

“For that, they should turn to us and to our customers that use well-designed programs to create a broader understanding. the use of properly designed programs, so that innovation can produce the best possible results (financial and safety wise) for companies and workers,” he adds.

“When it comes to hard hats as a parallel example, OSHA should (and I’m sure does) state what standards should be met, but then leave it to the companies that make hard hats to meet or exceed those standards while creating innovative new products … don’t over-legislate or regulate.”

In 2009 OSHA asked the General Accountability Office (GAO) to study the issue of accident and injury reporting and in its 2010 report the GAO stated, “Little research exists on the effect of workplace safety incentive programs and other workplace safety policies on workers’ reporting of injuries and illnesses.” The GAO’s research review discovered that “researchers distinguish between rate-based safety incentive programs, which reward workers for achieving low rates of reported injuries or illnesses, and behavior-based programs, which reward workers for certain behaviors, such as recommending safety improvements.

Of six studies GAO identified that assessed the effect of safety incentive programs, two analyzed the potential effect on workers’ reporting of injuries or illnesses, but they concluded that there was no relationship between the programs and injury and illness reporting.” (Emphasis added.) Nonetheless, the GAO and later, OSHA, concluded that “experts and industry officials, however, suggest that rate-based programs may discourage reporting of injuries and illnesses.

Experts and industry officials also reported that certain workplace polices, such as post-incident drug and alcohol testing, may discourage workers from reporting injuries and illnesses. Researchers and workplace safety experts also noted that how safety is managed in the workplace, including employer practices such as fostering open communication about safety issues, may encourage reporting of injuries and illnesses.”

“The tragedy of OSHA’s attitude is that these programs consistently improve safety, as determined by the same empiric methods that show that health and wellness, customer service and sales achievement incentive programs work,” says Sean Roark, CPIM, executive vice president of Texas-based Promo Pros/Incent Pros, Inc., a longtime IFI board director and current president of the Incentive Marketing Association.

“Design is the key. Frankly, this whole regulatory mess has evolved from flawed programs that assume that the easy way out is to tie rewards to reporting rates. In fact, for the most part, my understanding is that this practice evolved from the assumption that reporting was an ‘impartial measurement,’ and reflected results arising from firmly defined and monitored rules by a third party.

Have people tried to corrupt this practice? You bet. Does it sustain as a long-term policy? Nope. Sooner or later, I believe that the sheer momentum of habit and culture will reveal itself in something so disastrous that it can’t be hidden.

“OSHA makes no bones about how the OSHA culture views outcome-based incentives,” adds Roark. “They view such incentives as discouraging reporting and deny any positive redemptive value in the practice. Here’s the crux of it: they make an arbitrary unilateral claim that all outcome-based incentives discourage reporting. They say it as a proclamation, and the inference is that it is a given that every ethical and intelligent person should know.

“Those of us listening to these pronouncements make our rebuttals, but from a smaller stage to an audience that is not nearly as broad. Then, turn to another pronouncement: ‘We will penalize anything that promotes under-reporting.’ They don’t specify incentives, but anyone who reads the previous arbitrary assertion does not have to go very far to make a connection.”

More recently OSHA again raised concerns about rate-based programs as it moved to update its Recommendations for Safety and Health Programs, initially published in the 1980s, and comments about safety incentives being “negative incentives” or “disincentives” surfaced as the new iteration of the recommendations were released in early 2016.

Programs that focus on injury or illness rates are viewed as measuring “lagging indicators’” or those that measure the results or record of a company’s accident reporting. The language became even more direct with OSHA’s warning, “If such programs have the effect of discouraging reporting or employee participation, employers would not be in compliance with this section of the standard.”

For now, OSHA’s Recommendations for Safety and Health Programs are considered advisory, albeit with cautionary warnings, and serve to guide employers in developing safety and health programs that minimize workplace accidents, illnesses and deaths.

Safety incentive programs are still viewed by OSHA with skepticism but no immediate regulatory relief or legislation action is contemplated in the short term. The IFI continues to monitor these regulations and to encourage OSHA to consider tempering its opposition to safety incentive programs that have proven to be successful in improving worker safety and productivity.

Steve Slagle, CAE, is managing director of the Incentive Federation, Inc., an organization whose membership and leadership includes all the industry’s national trade associations, as well as individual companies. It is under the IFI umbrella that the collective interests of the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA), Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) and Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) are discussed, nurtured and advanced. IFI is primarily known for monitoring legislation and regulations that could affect the use of incentive and related promotional programs, as well as research about the incentive marketplace. Slagle retired as president and CEO of PPAI in 2011 after 15 years in the role and was inducted into the PPAI Hall of Fame in 2016.