Awarding cards for safety could backfire, unions fear

The lead contractor of the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) last week launched an employee incentive program in hopes of reducing worker injuries, but union officials say the initiative could lead to a more dangerous work environment.

Incentive programs vary widely, but many employers who use them promise to hold end-of-the-month raffles among workers for televisions, DVDs and other prizes. If a serious accident is reported, however, there are no giveaways.

At a Feb. 15 Senate hearing, CVC Project Director Bob Hixon said that Manhattan Construction Co. was poised to start an incentive program that will provide gift cards for workers and foremen who work safely.

The use of so-called safety incentive games has triggered extensive debates in the worker-safety and -health field over the past decade. During the Clinton administration, union officials pressed the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ban them.

Since the late 1990s, OSHA has issued reports critical of programs that award monetary incentives to foremen and workers who have a good safety record, saying that peer pressure may deter injured workers from reporting that they are hurt.

A spokesman for the Department of Labor said that while the incentives can reinforce compliance with OSHA standards, they must be carefully monitored to avoid any abuses.

“It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that such programs actually encourage safe practices and do not discourage employees from reporting hazardous conditions or job-related injuries and illnesses,” the spokesman.

Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO, said the programs usually end up making sites more dangerous: “The problem is, they don’t focus on the major issue, which are the hazardous conditions. They focus on the injuries being reported.”

She added that the CVC site had “a lot of hazardous conditions” and that management needs take care to address properly the safety issues rather than focus solely on rewarding those who do not get hurt.

“Incentive programs generally miss the mark,” she said.

Seminario cited a recent report by California state officials that examined the working conditions on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge project.

According to the Feb. 8 report, worker incentive programs appeared to contribute greatly to the decrease in injury reporting because of pressure from co-workers and superiors not to report injuries.

Manhattan declined to comment on the specifics of the program, citing its preference to keep it at the “worker level” and “without press,” according to CVC spokesman Tom Fontana.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this month expressed concern about the practice of “trade-stacking ” at the CVC site. This situation, in which many workers with multiple specialties work in the same area, can cause an increase in the risk of accidents and injuries.

Despite this practice, safety on the site has improved because of increased training and education, according to Hixon.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, has repeatedly questioned Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman about worker safety on the CVC site. During the Feb. 15 hearing, Durbin was sharply critical of the CVC team after learning from the GAO that debris littering the site was causing a hazard for workers.

“Training workers and making sure they do things safely is understood … but keeping a litter-free or debris-free worksite is obvious as your parents saying, ‘Clean your room,’” Durbin said.

Hixon assured him that managers are closely monitoring the cleanliness of the 580,000-square-foot site.