Shaping Workers' Attitudes toward Safety

By Bruening, John C. | Occupational Hazards, March 1990 | Go to article overview

Shaping Workers' Attitudes toward Safety


Bruening, John C., Occupational Hazards


SHAPING WORKERS' ATTITUDES TOWARD SAFETY

A behavioral psychologist suggests that safety incentive programs are only as good as the attitudes they promote.

The goal of every safety incentive program is pretty much the same: Reduce accidents and make the workplace safer. To reach this goal, safety officials can employ a seemingly limitless number of approaches. But according to Dr. Scott Geller, Ph.D., a safety incentive program is only as good as the attitude it fosters among employees.

Geller is a behavior analyst and professor of behavioral community psychology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. For the past 20 years, he has specialized in employee motivation programs. He is co-author of a series of training workbooks entitled, Behavior Analysis Training for Occupational Safety.

All too often, says Geller, a company will implement a safety incentive program that has more to do with penalties and punishments -- and the resulting negative attitudes -- than it does rewards. Geller is careful to define, and distinguish between, the two approaches.

"An incentive is an announcement of the possibility of a reward," Geller explains. "It's the antecedent condition, or the promotional part of the program. The reward for performing the required behavior is the consequence."

The penalty system, on the other hand, calls for the punishment of an employee who fails to perform the desired behavior.

"If I issue a $25 fine to an employee for not wearing the proper protective gear or not following the proper lockout/tagout procedures," he proposes, "that's a dis-incentive, involving a penalty rather than a reward as the consequence."

Geller observes that, "in many aspects of employee motivation, we've gone to some form of the penalty approach."

Although the outcome of both the penalty and the reward approach is the same, the resultant attitudes are very different, says Geller. If the desired effect is a more positive attitude among employees, the reward approach is the better option, he maintains.

"Penalties give the person the feeling that he or she is being controlled," says Geller. "The resulting attitude is that of being a `victim of the system.' Incentives make people perceive that their actions, and the results of their actions, are their own choice. That's the big advantage. When you get right down to it, we are controlling behavior with incentives, but the population involved in the program doesn't perceive it that way. That's what leads to more positive, more beneficial attitudes in an incentive reward program than in a penalty program."

Traditional Approach

Many companies, Geller has observed, follow a similar approach when determining award recipients in a safety incentive program. Recorded accidents and injuries are tallied over a quarterly, semiannual, annual, or similarly predetermined period. The employee or department with the fewest lost-time accidents -- or, better yet, none at all -- receives an incentive award.

"The reason it's often done that way is because it's easy," says Geller. "As a matter of record-keeping, a company already has to report its lost-time accidents anyway. Once that is done, all you have to do is have every eligible employee in the plant choose from a catalog of incentive rewards."

Despite the convenience of basing the program on records that are kept anyway, says Geller, the approach has some drawbacks.

"What happens first, especially in a situation where awards depend on group performance, is that people will refrain from reporting their recordable injuries," he explains. "They don't want to lose the reward for the rest of the group. I've talked to workers who have actually quit working in a plant with that type of arrangement because the stress is too great."

The result is not a reward for proper safety behavior, says Geller, but rather a reward for the avoidance of an outcome. …

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