Frontline Fundamentals: Measure What You Want

Imagine this scenario: A worker seriously cuts his nose on the job. The laceration causes part of his nose, at the base of the nostril, to partially separate from his face. The worker glues his nose back together with super glue to prevent going to the doctor and having an OSHA-recordable injury. He then receives two rewards through the company’s safety incentive program. The first is an immediate reward when his supervisor recommends him for safety excellence because he prevented a recordable injury. This is followed by a financial incentive at the end of the year, when his work group is given a bonus for not having a recordable injury during the calendar year.

Here’s another scenario to consider: An employee is stopped at an intersection and gets rear-ended by another vehicle hard enough that he is taken to the emergency room and receives medical treatment. Pursuant to 29 CFR 1904, “Recording and Reporting Occupational Injuries and Illness,” this is determined to be a new, work-related case that meets the general recording criteria and therefore is a recordable injury. Because he had a recordable injury, this employee is not invited to attend the company’s annual safety awards dinner, where prizes such as televisions and all-expenses-paid vacations are raffled and given away. Note: OSHA prohibits employer retaliation for reporting an injury (see 1904.35 and 1904.36) and will not allow employers that offer financial incentive programs to participate in their Voluntary Protection Programs.

Incentivize Desired Performance
Both scenarios are unfortunate and too common in the workplace. Organizations need to be aware that the absence of injury does not necessarily indicate the presence of safety. With that in mind, they must stop programs that incentivize results and instead focus on performance, which is the combination of behaviors and results. The guiding principle behind any incentive program, coaching or feedback should be to never reward results or punish someone without understanding the behavior driving the results. Get the desired behaviors and the results will take care of themselves.

There are two things employers need to understand about incentive programs. First, incentive programs that offer financial rewards for avoiding recordable injuries typically are created with the absolute best of intentions, which is to reduce injuries. However, what they actually tend to accomplish is reduced reporting and discouragement of appropriate medical care. Second, incentive programs that offer financial rewards for avoiding recordable injuries are fundamentally flawed in that they typically result in short-term improvements that are not sustainable. On their inception, incident rates will improve. Ultimately, however, they will result in worsened safety performance as needed improvements are missed because incidents and inconsequential errors are not reported. They also have the long-term impacts of lower levels of trust, bitterness toward management and decreased morale.

The primary flaw with this type of incentive program is the desired outcome. Do you want a workplace that has no recordable injuries, or do you want employees working in a manner that keeps them safe? Do you want to live in ignorant bliss that your most valuable assets – your people – are getting hurt, or do you want to know what is happening so you can address areas of concern?

Let’s look at lost-time rates as an example. In theory, lost-time rates are measures of severity. There are rates that measure the number of lost-time cases and severity rates based on the number of workdays missed due to injury. What do they actually measure? Think about this: Lost-time rates could be considered nothing more than a measurement of how willing an organization is to pay an injured worker for light duty. Really think about this; if an organization wanted to, their lost time rate could be zero unless an employee has been hospitalized.

Obtaining Ideal Safety Results
Here is the key to obtaining ideal safety results: Measure what you want. If you want your employees to work safely, measure and incentivize performance, which includes behaviors and results. Incident rates and injury counts are results that do not account for underlying behaviors. Focus on what you want, which is safe behavior, and provide incentives that encourage desired behaviors. Safety programs that focus on injuries are measuring exactly what you do not want and therefore are fundamentally flawed.

Also understand that safety leaders – defined here as those who take correct action, regardless of their position in the organization – are responsible for safety, but organizational leaders must promote safety. If you are an organizational leader, understand your employees will behave based on their perception of the consequences you provide, including gluing their nose back together.

Keep in mind that desired behaviors do not necessarily produce desired results, and desired results are not necessarily based on desired behaviors. In addition, consequences of desired behaviors are not always positive; for instance, rubber gloves are hot and they decrease dexterity. Just as a coach would not praise a team for winning by cheating, your program should not encourage shortcuts or failure to report injuries. If you are the supervisor of a crew installing underground cable and the crew members finish a job two weeks early, do not blindly praise the result without understanding the behavior. Did they work efficiently as a team under ideal digging conditions, or did they work in trenches without protective systems to save time?

Measure training completed and the effectiveness of training. Measure job observations. Measure compliance. Measure inconsequential error reporting. Measure preventive maintenance and pre-use inspections. Measure what you want because you will get what you measure. By improving behavior, you will obtain better results and the performance you want. This is not popular thinking, but if an employee gets hurt while behaving exactly as they should and to the best of their ability (e.g., the employee is stopped at a red light with their seat belt on), they should receive positive reinforcement and not be punished or penalized.

Take a lesson from professional golf instructors about focusing on what you want. They don’t tell a golfer to stop dropping their right shoulder – they tell them to keep their shoulders level. They would never tell the golfer they are aiming too far right – they would tell them to aim more to the left. By doing so, the instructor is focusing on what they want and keeping the golfer focused on desired behaviors. If you focus on the negative – that is, what you don’t want – that’s what the golfer thinks about and likely is what will happen.

In summary, account for behavior and results in what you measure, and reinforce desired behaviors. By doing so, you will see improvements in individual behavior and your safety programs that will lead to better, more sustainable performance.

About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CET, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute (www.ip-institute.com). His experience includes operations management, safety and training roles. McPeak holds multiple safety and training certifications and has received numerous awards. He also has served as chairman of Task Team One of the OSHA ET&D Partnership, as a member of Incident Prevention’s editorial advisory board and as a member of the North Carolina Apprenticeship Council. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About Frontline: The Frontline program provides interactive, engaging classroom training that empowers employees to become better utility safety leaders. Subject matter experts facilitate the learning process and cover four areas – safety leadership, incident prevention, human performance, and standards and operations – critical to safety success. Visit www.frontlineutilityleader.com for more information.

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Measure What You Want: Getting Rewarded for Getting Hurt Webinar
November 15 at 3 p.m. Eastern
Visit www.frontlineutilityleader.com for more information.

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