By Thomas E. (Ted) Boyce, PhD
For 120 years, behavioral scientists have been able to demonstrate that behaviors are triggered by events that come before them (activators) and are either strengthened or weakened as a function of the outcomes they produce for the performer (consequences). This model is often discussed as the ABC model of behavior change and has been described in much more detail by me elsewhere (cf. https://goo.gl/AxSr0b). So what does this have to do with safety incentives?
Put simply, in practice, an incentive is a promise (activator) of a reward (consequence) given certain behavior. Yet, this is not how many safety incentive programs are set up. Sure, in most corporate-based incentive programs, leadership promises a reward. However, this reward is most often dependent on achieving a certain outcome (e.g., the absence of injuries), not directly on the behaviors that should produce that outcome. When structuring incentives this way, leaders make the assumption that the outcome can only be achieved if the desired behaviors occurred. Yet, this is not always the case. Safety incentives provide a great example of this.
Specifically, how might one obtain the “absence of an injury” that is so often tied to safety incentives? I can think of three ways: 1) employees engaged in safe behavior reliably enough to avoid injury; 2) employees did not report injuries that could be hidden; or 3) we were just plain lucky. It is numbers 2 and 3 that concern me and that have also caused many safety incentive programs to attract the attention of OSHA. OSHA cares about underreporting, and underreporting is even more likely when individual incentive payouts are dependent on everyone on a crew or team not having an injury.