The dichotomy of OHS

There are two potentially conflicting approaches to changing the occupational health and safety performance of managers and workers – cultural change or individual inducements. In some ways this reflects a societal dichotomy between the group and the individual, the big picture and the small, employers and workers, white-collar and blue collar, blame the system or blame the worker, and other combinations.

A colleague brought an article by Ross Gittins to this blog’s attention in which Gittins, an economics journalist, criticises key performance indicators and suggests looking at “intrinsic motivations”, based on the work of Jana Gallus. It seems we should be looking at awards rather than rewards. Gallus’s work provides a useful counterpoint or entry point to a recent book called Risky Rewards, written by Andrew Hopkins and Sarah Maslen.Hopkins and Maslen raise many issues in the book; one asks the fundamental question:

“…are we primarily driven by financial incentives, or are we motivated by other kinds of rewards, such as job satisfaction, and positive feedback from supervisors, that make financial rewards largely irrelevant?” (page 5)

This is a crucial question for all who work in the area of OHS and who want to improve worker safety. Will OHS improve through a strategy based on financial incentives or one based on less tangible but more welcome rewards? Extrinsic or intrinsic motivations? Rewards or awards?  Hopkins and Maslen give great weight to the work of Daniel Pink on this issue. (A summary of Pink’s ideas are HERE with a TED Talk from 2009 HERE)

This question is also crucial when considering the productivity of a company and a nation’s economy. (Productivity Commission – take note)

The safest response would be to advocate a mix of the two acknowledging that individual workers will value one approach more than the other and that position will change over the term of employment as individual needs change. However this equivocation may also be a serious impediment to change.  It may be necessary to eject the financial incentive altogether or, at least, workshop this option in your own company for a start.  This may feel threatening to everyone in the company as it questions “the way we do things round here” (the contemporary definition of culture) but it will also reveal what people and the organisation see as important.  If “Safety is our number one priority”, put it to the test.

Hopkins & Maslen do not reiterate Pink’s theories.  They are sufficiently knowledgeable to seek other, similar statements that both  question and illuminate Pink’s thoughts.  It must be remembered that Pink, nor Maslen or Hopkins, is discussing OHS directly. Maslen & Hopkins quote an unpublished paper by Allan Hawke, a prominent Australia civil servant, where he discusses the negative consequences of financial bonuses:

“Where such schemes are in operation, most individuals or groups will work towards optimising their performance, regardless of its effect on the system. Creative accounting, goal displacement, withholding information, reduced quality at the expense of more output, individual visibility which discourages cooperation and other gaming strategies are the perverse results of a perverse system” (page 26, emphasis added)

It could be put that bonuses work against OHS if we expand Hawke’s reference to “the system” as including the “safe system of work”.  This is a valid approach when one considers OHS requires consultation (“cooperation”), accurate reporting (“withholding information”) and accountability on return-to-work strategies (“creative accounting”).

Maslen & Hopkins address the issue of safety and motivations in a short section in response to assertions that senior managers look at OHS independently from rewards, incentives and values.  For those consultants who base their OHS services and leadership courses around values, Maslen & Hopkins write:

“This belief that values can provide sufficient motivation for safety needs to be treated with scepticism. The work environment creates immense pressure to achieve cost and schedule objectives. These may not necessarily negate safe decisions, but they can cloud focus.” (page 123)

Following further discussion and a case study, the authors write:

“The cynic could reasonably suggest that positioning safety as special, as a value, may be a way for companies to escape hard questions about the low weighting given to safety in incentives.” (page 125)

The book includes a solid discussion on long-term bonuses.  It may be that the bonus system that has operated for many decades may be one of the elements behind the profit vs safety argument.  Maslen and Hopkins write:

“Most accidents have no discernible effect on profit, so long-term bonuses provide no incentive to reduce the number of accidents.  On the contrary, long-term bonuses provide an incentive to maximise profit at the expense of safety, if need be.” (page 146)

The traditional approach to bonuses and financial rewards reflected and supported the classic capitalism of the 20th century but work structures have changed remarkably in the last 30 years or so and will continue to change.  The growth of the study of work/life balance and the push for increased workplace flexibility can be seen as a rebalancing of capitalist values that diminish the worship of the Dollar.  Workers are realising that there is more to life than money, even though a living wage remains significant.

The decline of “danger money“, or “danger pay”, as an accepted safety control (?) mechanism has gone from modern wage negotiations, at least in Australia, though it may exist in less formal ways. This occurred at the same time as the growth of risk-based OHS legislation and indicates that even institutions and regulators accepted that financial compensation was no longer appropriate.  Whether the designing out of occupational hazards corresponded to the same priority is arguable, but the value shift occurred.

Some of the recent work of Gittins, Hopkins and Maslen and others should spark a debate about how OHS is seen by corporations, regulators, worker associations and OHS professional bodies.  Should OHS be seen in monetary terms?  Should OHS performance be rewarded financially? Or should safety be rewarded through more societal, psychological and welfare methods?

The role of rewards and awards as motivators of change in OHS is not clear and requires more analysis and discussion.  Hopkins’ and Maslen’s book is an excellent collection of this discussion and through a combination of local research and contextualising major process industry disasters, it is a major resource for the debate. But it is only part of the discussion.  Daniel Pink’s research and theories have a growing influence in Australian industries, deservedly, but they are only part of the sociological, psychological and economics discussion on OHS that Australia and other countries must continue if work is to become increasingly safe in this century.

Kevin Jones

The author of this article was provided with a review copy of Risk Rewards

6 thoughts on “The dichotomy of OHS”

  1. “The role of rewards and awards as motivators of change in OHS is not clear and requires more analysis and discussion.” I would add to that discussion something regarding the rewards and motivations of regulators and compensation agencies that drive their behaviour toward some activities and over others. As long as some deaths and injuries cost more than others, we will have a skewed focus on workplace safety. There is little motivation to shine a light on health and safety when the consequences of doing so are viewed negatively.

  2. Hi Kevin
    AS I understand findings in relation to financial rewards (and note I do not claim to be an expert), there is an underlying need for financial rewards to be sufficient to allow people to live in reasonable comfort; from the point of view of competition with other jobs there is a need to offer extra reward where a job is less attractive due to recognised negative aspects of the job (remote area or physically / mentally demanding…); and there is a need for financial rewards to be perceived as fair in comparison to what others are receiving. In that context underpaying a person in comparison to what others are being paid is a demotivator. But paying someone extra does not get greater performance – increasing pay does not increase performance (at the extreme paying the heads of large corporations $millions does not get better performance than you’d get from a competent, thinking, professional person for 10% of that cost).
    In the context of the above offering financial rewards for safe work will achieve nothing more than would be achieved by recognising and acclaiming safe work.

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