December 2014

Administrator's Message

Positive signs in safety recognition programs

By Michael WoodMichael Wood

Late last month, I was asked to assist in judging the Rose Awards for the Oregon Columbia Chapter of the Associated General Contractors. I appreciate this opportunity every year – it gives me a chance to get in touch with what some of the best construction contractors are doing to build and then to build upon their safety programs.

I was struck this year by the apparent change in perspectives on employee recognition over the past decade. When I first began judging these awards, it was not unusual to see an employee recognition program that relied primarily – or even exclusively – on hours worked without a reported injury.

Over the years, I have often asked applicants how they can be sure that their programs actually encourage safety, rather than simply underreporting. Their answers have rarely been completely satisfying – I am among those who worry that aggressive injury reduction targets and either individual or team incentives based on them are less likely to lead to injury reductions than they are to result in an outbreak of "bloody pocket syndrome" (so named because of injured hands being thrust into pockets rather than reported).

This year solidified a trend that I had already noticed in the past few years. Employers – or at least the best employers – have increasingly moved toward "on the spot" recognition of safe work and safety program contributions, and they have increasingly shifted their formal recognition programs to participation, rather than reported injuries. That's good news.

I also listened to employers explain how they had tested their efforts to ensure that they were not creating other disincentives – for example, by requiring thorough incident investigations presented to senior management, were they inadvertently "punishing" those who reported near misses? Would it work better to focus on the "lessons learned" from the very beginning by asking the employees to draft a safety bulletin to be shared with other employees – and in that way ensure that the focus from the beginning was on the improvements to be made, rather than on being "called on the carpet"?

Anyone who has heard me talk about the subject already knows that I am skeptical of many aspects of the behavior-based safety movement. But one of its real successes (at its best) can be in shifting the focus of the discussion away from reported injuries and developing methods to talk about safety issues in a non-confrontational, nonthreatening way. And any time we focus more on the underlying problems and less on punishing (of failing to reward) people for outcomes that depend in part on chance, that's good news for our efforts to achieve real safety and health in the workplace.

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