by James W. Heslep
In the past decade, it has become increasingly common to see employers devise new and innovative ways to reinforce the importance of safe workplaces to their employees. In an effort to achieve greater workplace safety, employers have frequently looked to implementing safety incentive programs (“SIPs”) to reward employees with cash, prizes, awards, or other recognition when the total number of injuries and near misses falls below the level specified by management. For example, an individual employee or department could be rewarded with anything from free t-shirts to a chance to win a new pickup truck in a company raffle if the injury tally falls below the threshold the employer establishes. Some employers have even used cash incentives or additional vacation time as rewards to encourage workers to be more safety conscious.
At first blush, SIPs seem like a good idea because they reward positive results in the reduction of workplace injuries. Employers can often see and hear positive results from their workers as they strive toward stated goals and obtain rewards. The achievement of SIP goals can build camaraderie in the workforce and an opportunity for employees to bond in the accomplishment of group goals.
Critics of SIPs, however, see such programs as a disincentive to properly report workplace injuries. Just as a SIP can prod employees to work toward a prize, a SIP can also lead employees to not report their own injuries in order to maintain eligibility for rewards. Worse yet, SIPs can also lead employees to pressure co-workers not to report injuries in order to maintain the group’s eligibility for rewards. These potential negative outcomes from SIPs have led to increasing criticism of such programs.
In such instances, SIPs can lead to violations of workers’ compensation laws and regulations requiring the reporting of occupational injuries. Likewise, a failure to accurately report occupational injuries in applicable OSHA and MSHA logs also constitutes a violation of federal law. When employers do not know of injuries that are occurring, the lack of knowledge can lead to a failure to abate blatant injury hazards yielding even greater potential liability. OSHA has targeted SIPs in employer audits in the recent past for these very reasons. While the use of such programs is not an outright violation of workplace safety regulations, OSHA has indicated that it will view them warily. OSHA believes that there is a generalized underreporting of occupational injuries, and it is striving to identify the cause of this phenomenon. Any policy or program that could serve as a disincentive to the reporting of occupational injuries will likely be seen as a suspect practice.
Employers can continue to reap the benefits of a unified and safety-conscious workforce, but care must be taken to ensure that such programs cannot be seen as a method of dissuading employees from reporting legitimate occupational injuries. As employers, the key to maintaining an effective SIP is to eliminate the disincentive to report occupational injuries. First, all employers need to have a strong policy in place requiring that occupational injuries be reported to supervisory personnel immediately. Second, if an employer wishes to use a SIP, it should avoid linking injury free periods of work with cash rewards. Direct payment for periods without an injury can look suspicious to a safety auditor. Employers wishing to reward employees for safe work practices should identify and issue rewards after a particular quarter or year has occurred without reported injuries. Announce the employee picnic or prize raffle afterthe employees have achieved their safety goals. That way, previously identified rewards cannot be cited as an incentive to not report an occupational injury, and employees may not coerce one another to not report injuries in order to obtain rewards. Finally, do not single out employees who work accident free periods for prizes and awards while excluding those who have sustained an injury. In short, make safety a group effort that yields a group reward.
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