“Zero Injuries” Is Nothing To Celebrate

blood candy

By Phil La Duke

I was checking out the discussion groups on LinkedIn this week when I happened across a very popular, and frankly very scary, thread. It involved a safety professional providing candy bars to the workers as a reward for a year with zero injuries.

I was alarmed at how many softheaded mouth-breathers chimed in about what a great idea it was, and what an accomplishment a whole year without zero injuries is. Before I continue this rant, I should be clear: I am not against safety incentives, but I AM against giving incentives because something didn’t happen. Rewarding your employees for zero injuries is like rewarding them when it doesn’t rain. Why not? The safety boobs ask, a day without rain is a GOOD thing, and if we want people to continue to do good things we need to reward them for it.

I think the rain analogy works pretty well—of course the workers don’t have any control over whether or not it rains, and they do have some limited—but certainly not absolute—control over whether or not injuries occur—because if we don’t understand exactly what conditions we created to achieve zero injuries it just leads to a blanket “well the recipe worked”; well maybe it did and maybe it didn’t.

The Dalmatian Effect

With all apologies to Dalmatian lovers out there, this particular breed is (at least according to my vet) notoriously difficult to train, tends toward violent outbursts, and can turn on the owner. This is not to say this is a condemnation of all Dalmatians, of course. In fact there is a darned good reason that Dalmatians have this reputation, you see, a disproportionate number of Dalmatians are deaf; it’s a congenital defect in the breed. People unfamiliar with Dalmatians get a cute little Dalmatian puppy and try to train it. They yell “no!” as it piddles on the carpet, they beat it with a rolled up magazine when it chews the credenza. The poor dog doesn’t have a clue why it’s being punished so it can’t be trained effectively. Likewise it doesn’t hear the “good dog” praising for getting things right so punishment and reward seem to be completely random and that makes the afflicted Dalmatians surly brutes waiting for some pay back. Not think about rewarding workers for zero injuries; is it so different from how we treat the deaf Dalmatian?

For many workers, rewards for zero injuries are considered patronizing and insulting. I once asked a tradesman if the company provided incentives for zero injuries and his answer was quite telling, “yeah these idiots buy us pizza at the end of the month if we don’t kill anybody as if we would deliberately get hurt if it wasn’t for their crappy pizza”. He went on to say that he and most (his words not mine) of his coworkers felt like management treated them like children and were insulted by it. “I work safely because it’s just the smart thing to do; they can shove their pizza.”

If You Reward Things You Don’t Understand You Can’t Reliably Repeat them

I used to teach problem solving techniques and one of the first steps in problem solving is to ascertain the structure of the problem: Broad, Specific, Start Up, or Positive. It was tough for people to understand the concept of a positive problem, so I would explain it this way: suppose you find an extra $50 on your next paycheck. Wouldn’t you want to know what caused you to have the additional money? (the answer was invariable a resounding yes!) So now you have a problem, right? You have a positive condition but you don’t know what caused it so you can’t replicate it.

So there you have it. Zero injuries is a positive problem that must be solved so that it can be replicated reliably and economically. Let’s face it everyone has zero injuries until someone gets hurt.

Simple (and Simple-Minded) Solutions To Complex Problems

Let’s say that instead giving adults candy bars for zero injuries we attempted to answer the question “why did we have zero injuries this year?” We might begin by brainstorming reasons that typically result in a reduction in reported injuries. Our list might look something like this:

  • Better housekeeping
  • Quicker response to physical hazards
  • Better training resulting in better decision making
  • Under reporting
  • Luck
  • Outsourcing the most dangerous work to suppliers
  • Better containment of physical hazards
  • Increased awareness of the risks associated with a given task
  • More skilled supervision (as measured by the completion rate of training
  • Higher quality training (as determined by sound course evaluation)
  • Improved case management
  • Increased scrutiny and data analysis of the risks associated with injuries
  • Reduced production
  • Higher machine reliability
  • A light winter that resulted in less slips and falls on wet or icy surfaces
  • Increased number of safety suggestions
  • Fraudulent record keeping
  • A climate of fear for reporting injuries
  • Disciplinary for being injured

These are just things off the top of my head that could cause a reduction in injuries and/or achievement of the goal of zero injuries. Which of these do you really want to reward? Aren’t there some of these that you DON’T want to reward? Aren’t some of these conditions unworthy of a candy bar? But when you give a blanket reward without understand what did and what did not contribute to an outcome you are endorsing every one of these things that are true.

Zeroes Aren’t Necessarily Heroes

What was most troubling wasn’t that a safety practitioner gave out an incentive for zero injuries, after all that IS what we want isn’t it? What was troubling was that the thread had several hundred comments praising the safety guy in question for giving out candy bars for zero injuries. I’ve asked the question before, but am compelled to ask it again, HOW STUPID ARE WE? One of my contacts challenged my assertion that maybe, just maybe, the zero injury accomplishment was because of under reporting by saying that he doubted that people would under report just for a candy bar. Okay maybe he’s right, but then rewarding them with a candy bar for zero injuries is even more pointless.

We have to stop acting like injuries are always a conscious choice to take an unnecessary risk and start acting more scientific. We have to understand the nature of the injuries that happen at OUR sites in OUR industries and stop listening to the snake oil salesmen. Only when we understand the things that people can actively DO to reduce the risk of injury can we responsibly reward them for doing so. But most of you reading this won’t do that. Why? Several reasons: 1) it’s hard 2) we like to give out trinkets and swag and 3) we don’t know how to establish and interpret good leading indicators. In the end we just take credit that is ours to take and ignore risks until someone dies.

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