Be Careful with Safety Incentive and Discipline Policies!

OSHA has always looked closely at safety incentive programs and as a general rule, has not encouraged them. I remember the days when incentive programs were based around big prizes for no accidents. Cars, trips, TVs, and giftcards were given away and you can be sure that accident reporting was at an all time low. Most companies have moved far from that type of incentive program and understand what to incentivize while not impacting injury reporting.

OSHA issued an enforcement memo earlier this year that warns agains discipline and enforcement practices that may violate whistleblower laws and/or section 11 (c) of the OSHA Act.  Here are the four “potentially discriminatory” policies listed by OSHA in the memo.

  1. OSHA has received reports of employers who have a policy of taking disciplinary action against employees who are injured on the job, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the injury. Reporting an injury is always a protected activity. OSHA views discipline imposed under such a policy against an employee who reports an injury as a direct violation of section 11(c) or FRSA. In other words, an employer’s policy to discipline all employees who are injured, regardless of fault, is not a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason that an employer may advance to justify adverse action against an employee who reports an injury. In addition, such a policy is inconsistent with the employer’s obligation to establish a way for employees to report injuries under 29 CFR 1904.35(b), and where it is encountered, a referral for a recordkeeping investigation should be made. Where OSHA encounters such conduct by a railroad carrier, or a contractor or subcontractor of a railroad carrier, a referral to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which may conduct a recordkeeping investigation, may also be appropriate.
  2. In another situation, an employee who reports an injury or illness is disciplined, and the stated reason is that the employee has violated an employer rule about the time or manner for reporting injuries and illnesses. Such cases deserve careful scrutiny. Because the act of reporting the injury directly results in discipline, there is a clear potential for violating section 11(c) or FRSA. OSHA recognizes that employers have a legitimate interest in establishing procedures for receiving and responding to reports of injuries. To be consistent with the statute, however, such procedures must be reasonable and may not unduly burden the employee’s right and ability to report. For example, the rules cannot penalize workers who do not realize immediately that their injuries are serious enough to report, or even that they are injured at all. Nor may enforcement of such rules be used as a pretext for discrimination. In investigating such cases, factors such as the following may be considered: whether the employee’s deviation from the procedure was minor or extensive, inadvertent or deliberate, whether the employee had a reasonable basis for acting as he or she did, whether the employer can show a substantial interest in the rule and its enforcement, and whether the discipline imposed appears disproportionate to the asserted interest. Again, where the employer’s reporting requirements are unreasonable, unduly burdensome, or enforced with unjustifiably harsh sanctions, they may result in inaccurate injury records, and a referral for a recordkeeping investigation should be made.
  3. In a third situation, an employee reports an injury, and the employer imposes discipline on the ground that the injury resulted from the violation of a safety rule by the employee. OSHA encourages employers to maintain and enforce legitimate workplace safety rules in order to eliminate or reduce workplace hazards and prevent injuries from occurring in the first place. In some cases, however, an employer may attempt to use a work rule as a pretext for discrimination against a worker who reports an injury. A careful investigation is needed. Several circumstances are relevant. Does the employer monitor for compliance with the work rule in the absence of an injury? Does the employer consistently impose equivalent discipline against employees who violate the work rule in the absence of an injury? The nature of the rule cited by the employer should also be considered. Vague rules, such as a requirement that employees “maintain situational awareness” or “work carefully” may be manipulated and used as a pretext for unlawful discrimination. Therefore, where such general rules are involved, the investigation must include an especially careful examination of whether and how the employer applies the rule in situations that do not involve an employee injury. Enforcing a rule more stringently against injured employees than noninjured employees may suggest that the rule is a pretext for discrimination against an injured employee in violation of section 11(c) or FRSA.
  4. Finally, some employers establish programs that unintentionally or intentionally provide employees an incentive to not report injuries. For example, an employer might enter all employees who have not been injured in the previous year in a drawing to win a prize, or a team of employees might be awarded a bonus if no one from the team is injured over some period of time. Such programs might be well-intentioned efforts by employers to encourage their workers to use safe practices. However, there are better ways to encourage safe work practices, such as incentives that promote worker participation in safety-related activities, such as identifying hazards or participating in investigations of injuries, incidents or “near misses”. OSHA’s VPP Guidance materials refer to a number of positive incentives, including providing tee shirts to workers serving on safety and health committees; offering modest rewards for suggesting ways to strengthen safety and health; or throwing a recognition party at the successful completion of company-wide safety and health training. See Revised Policy Memo #5 – Further Improvements to VPP (June 29, 2011).

The bottom line is to be sure that your incentive and discipline programs do not discourage injury reporting.

Leave a Reply