Promoting workplace safety is as non-controversial as promoting firearm safety, safe-driving, and energy efficiency. However, when the advancement of workplace safety pits worker against worker then controversy begins.
Encouraging labor and management to work together to reduce on-the-job injuries is a good and noble policy. Who among us wants to see an injury occur at work, particularly one that would easily have been avoided if an adequate safety program had been in place, or if the worker had followed directions? Over the years many employers have taken steps to improve workplace safety by consistently explaining and describing how jobs are to be performed, holding mandatory safety meetings and so on. Labor, and labor unions have taken action to reduce workplace injuries by forming safety committees (oftentimes with management), holding workshops for stewards, and the membership, all with the intention keeping the workplace safe.
Reducing workplace injuries produces many favorable consequences, including:
-no lost time from work
-no loss in productivity,
-no loss or reduction in household income
-no disruption to the household
-no medical costs
-reduced workers’ compensation costs
-less potential for labor-management conflict over availability and suitability of restricted work
Rewarding workers for exercising proper safety techniques, attending safety meetings or offering recommendations for improving safety practices all sounds good, right? But, here’s where worker safety incentive programs can become a problem. In these programs, the employer rewards its employees for the company having gone so many days, weeks or months without a workplace injury, or without any lost time days. The rewards may take the form of monetary compensation, awards or recognition for having reached a predetermined goal as established by the employer.
What’s the downside you ask? While workers may be encouraged to report all injuries, the reporting of an injury, regardless of how minor can cause a break in the run of consecutive injury-free days from work and, perhaps more importantly for some, no reward ($$) from the employer. By following the rules and reporting all injuries, a worker risks incurring the anger of co-workers who have been informed by their employer that they will not receive a prize. Here’s the dilemma: Report the injury and lose the reward, or don’t report the injury and risk potentially serious consequences by way of a reprimand, suspension or something worse for having failed to follow company policy. The situation becomes much more problematic down the road, if what seemed like a minor back strain that the worker chose not to report out of fear of turning the co-workers against him is later diagnosed by a doctor as a herniated disc for which surgery is needed. Now the worker has a huge problem because the workers’ compensation claim resulting from the workplace accident will likely be denied by the employer and workers’ compensation insurance company because there is no record of the worker having reported the accident to the plant nurse, supervisor, or anyone else in a managerial capacity.
What now is the worker to do if he has been taken off work by his doctor for an accident and condition that the employer has denied is work-related but prevents him from working and generating income, and which requires an operation? The problem is greatly magnified if the injured worker lacks health insurance, lacks short or long-term disability benefits, or lacks a second household income with which to pay for medical care, groceries and rent.
Worker safety programs are intended to bring workers together by providing them with a reward for having an injury free workplace. Programs that implicitly encourage the under reporting of injuries are wrong. It is simply unfair to place an employee in the position of having to forego a bonus because his friend and co-worker has suffered an injury on the job. Instead of uniting workers, the safety incentive programs may well have the unintended consequence of dividing them.