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OSHA & Workers Comp Insurer Disagree Over Effect of Workplace Safety Incentives

Should employers put safety incentive programs into place which reward groups of workers in situations where the incentive requires no days off from any workers due to injury? The answer to this question is in dispute. Safety News Alert reports one workers' compensation insurer says the programs are a key part of successful safety efforts. However, Occupational Safety & Health Administration argues the programs are actually a bad thing because they don't do anything to prevent injuries and they could make it harder for injured employees to get their workers' compensation benefits.

A workers' compensation insurer stands to benefit significantly if fewer employees are able to successfully make a claim to get workers' comp benefits. As a result, in this disagreement, OSHA seems to have the stronger position. Safety incentive programs which provide a cash incentive or other bonus to groups of workers can be harmful to employees who get hurt on-the-job.

The Problems with Safety Incentive Programs Rewarding All Workers

Safety incentive programs which reward all workers when none miss work seem to operate on the theory that workers aren't motivated enough to create a safe work environment for themselves.  These programs are based around the belief that avoiding serious or potentially even fatal injuries isn't a strong enough incentive for employees to try to be safe as possible. The theory behind the programs is offering workers a cash bonus or other reward for being safer on-the-job would provide more effective incentive to create a better safety culture than concern among workers for their own life.

Obviously, this theory isn't a very good one. Workers have plenty of incentive to be careful on the job, and often problems arise not from workers' lack of care but instead from lack of training, from inadequate safety equipment, or from other employer-created problems.

Since the incentive programs don't actually prompt workers to be safer in most cases, the effect of these programs is instead to simply encourage peer pressure to prevent reporting of injuries. If no workers get the bonus or incentive because one worker reports an injury or takes time off from work due to injury, then the injured employee may feel guilty about coming forward after he or she is hurt. An injured worker may not want to deprive all of the other co-workers of the bonus. The co-workers may also pressure the injured worker not to be upfront about making a report of the injury.

Safety News Alert indicates the workers' comp insurer who has spoken out in favor of these incentive programs thinks the incentives are too low to result in peer pressure preventing reporting of work injuries. However, if this is true, the incentives would also be too low to actually encourage a change in behavior to improve safety efforts.

Since some studies already show only around 70 percent of work injuries are properly reported, there is no reason to add any further discouragement preventing workers from reporting their injuries and getting benefits.