Published on Labor Notes (http://www.labornotes.org)
Confronting Blame-the-Worker Safety
In a Missouri food warehouse, 150 workers load and unload trucks, lift boxes, drive fork trucks, and
move endless pallets. Each month that no one reports an injury, all workers receive prizes, such as
$50 gift certificates. If someone reports an injury, no prizes are given that month.
Last year, management added a new element to this “safety incentive” program: if a worker reported
an injury, not only would co-workers forgo monthly prizes but the injured worker had to wear a
fluorescent orange vest for a week. The vest identified the worker as a safety problem, and alerted co-
workers: he lost you your prizes.
Blame-the-worker programs like this are flourishing, and they are harmful for workplace health and
safety. Why are employers implementing them?
For decades, employers have brought in work-restructuring programs such as Lean, Six Sigma, and
kaizen/continuous improvement. The result has been understaffing, work overload, long hours, job
combinations—and therefore increased stress, repetitive strain, and other injuries and illnesses.
Increased injury rates brought higher workers compensation premiums and meant a higher risk of
OSHA inspections. Supervisors lost bonuses, and facilities faced the loss of safety awards that had
helped them win investments and contracts.
But instead of rethinking their work restructuring, employers came up with a different plan: hide the
injuries. Enter “behavior-based safety.”
KNOW THE ENEMY
Behavior-based safety programs and practices focus on worker behavior rather than on workplace
hazards as the cause of injuries and illnesses:
• Safety incentive programs, where workers receive prizes or rewards when they don’t report work-
• Injury discipline policies, where workers are threatened with or receive discipline (including
termination) when they do report injuries
• Post-injury drug testing, where workers are automatically drug-tested when