On today’s episode, we discuss whether we should give prizes for safety.
To frame our discussion, we use the papers. Motivating the Workforce and The Demotivating Effect (and Unintended Message) of Awards. Tune in to hear our discussion about whether prizes encourage further safety or are just a silly pat-on-the-back.
“It’s definitely the case that some of these site visits are almost like information exchange…”
“Some of our brightest researchers got diverted from research to prepare the awards nominations, to show how good the department was at gender equity.”
“In this second study, they were testing specifically this idea that the award tells people what the school expects of them.”
Tait, R., & Walker, D. (2000). Motivating the workforce: the value of external health and safety awards. Journal of Safety Research, 31(4), 243-251.
Robinson, C. D., Gallus, J., Lee, M. G., & Rogers, T. (2019). The demotivating effect (and unintended message) of awards. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
David: You’re listening to the Safety of Work podcast episode 15. Today we’re asking the question, should we get prizes for safety? Let’s get started.
Hey everybody. My name is David Proven. I'm here with Drew Rae and we're from the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University. Welcome to the Safety of Work podcast. If this is your first time listening, then thanks for coming. The podcast is produced every week and the show notes can be found at safetyofwork.com. In each episode, we ask an important question in relation to the safety of work or the work of safety, and we examine the evidence surrounding it. Drew, what's today’s question?
Drew: The question for the episode today is should we give prizes for safety? I don’t know if we had prizes specifically in mind when we wrote our Safety Work versus Safety of Work paper, but I think they are one of those things that folds really neatly into that category of things that we might do for a number of different reasons.
When a company applies for a safety award or when we give out a safety award, it’s ambiguous whether we’re doing that as a marketing exercise, whether we’re trying to improve safety, or some sort of mix in the two, where we’re trying to celebrate safety because it’s good outside the organization, makes people inside the organization feel good, and that’s generally a good thing rather than a specific safety improvement. That’s our question. Is it a good idea to give these prizes from those different perspectives?
When we talk about prizes, we’re basically talking about any award that someone gives to someone else to recognize if it’s made to improve safety. There are lots of safety organizations and industry organizations that give out various awards. As far as I know, what I’m most familiar with is that companies tend to self-nominate for this award. They put forward particular projects, particular initiatives, or sometimes in some categories, particular individuals that they think are a good chance of getting the price.
In the other direction, some companies give out internal awards. Things like “safe employee of the month” or you’re a recognition prize because someone’s made a particular innovation or improvement, or done a particularly good piece of work.
David: I’ve been there well and truly using safety. There’s lots of industry awards and prizes for safety, a number of regulators have a whole set of categories of annual awards for safety, many organizations have awards schemes. When we talked about the safety of work or safety work, it is one of those things you don’t know why the organization’s doing it.
Like you said, are they doing it to reward people for doing something well in the hope that they’ll continue it? Are they doing it to try to create some ambition for other people to be safe and maybe win it in the future? Are they trying just to show other people that they’re safe and make their life a little bit easier or make them more attractive to clients? There’s a whole lot of reasons. Unless you stop and think about it, you don’t know which reason or all of those reasons for organizations doing it.
Drew: Yeah. I’m the one who chose the papers for this episode. What made me particularly keen to look at it was, I was looking at a way we could talk a little bit about using behavioral economics for safety. Giving money to try to get someone to do something, that’s classic economics. It might be a good in. But there’s also the thing that whether awards help or don’t help, they’re not intended as some drastic reform of safety. They are not. They are something to motivate people, to try to get them inclined a little bit of extra incentive. That fits well with the modern thinking about behavioral economics and not just small incentives as ways of shifting behavior patterns.
David: We got to talk about two papers one at a time. Do you want to start with describing the first paper?
Drew: Sure. The first paper is directly in the safety field. The second one isn’t. This first paper is called Motivating the Workforce: The Value of External Health and Safety Awards. The papers are a little old. It was written in 2000 and it was published in the Journal of Safety Research. That’s a reputable journal. It’s probably not up there with the leading safety journals. With these old papers, one of the checks that we do is we check who cited them because the older something is, the more chance there is that there’s been something more recent that has supplanted it, and chances are the more recent stuff has cited the old stuff.
In this case, the research hasn’t been updated. It turns out there’s hardly any research at all certainly into external safety awards. It’s a little bit more of an internal company motivating prizes. This is pretty much the research on external safety awards.
The paper is by Robin Tait and Deborah Walker. I haven’t given in their titles, because it’s so old I’m not quite sure of the current title. I couldn’t look it up and find out. The paper doesn’t have a lot of information about methods. It doesn’t have a method section. It drip-feeds the method as it goes through. It’s mainly a piece of descriptive research. It’s surveying people and interviewing people about award schemes to find out what they think.
The study makes a few general conclusions about safety awards. They will be maybe to jump in and comment on these as we go. The first one is that they found the awards seem to be concentrated in particular industries. Construction has lots of safety awards, whereas service industries like healthcare have hardly any.
David: I think and we know that there are awards in those types of the environments because those companies are often trying to promote their safety credentials to potential clients to win more work. They like applying for more and like receiving awards, and there’s so many on offer for those types of industries now. They are probably the talks of organizations that are most likely to apply for broader awards like regulator awards and things like that because there needs to be some return for the effort that goes into preparing a good award application.
Drew: Yes. That was certainly what the research was thought, was that they thought there was a clear pattern that where there are external benefits to the organization either for receiving or for giving an award. They’ve said a lot of organizations that give awards do it for the same set of reasons that they receive. It shows you safety credentials, it shows you care, it gets your name out there. Where does the benefit of that being publicly known or having some stamp you can say that you’re good at safety? That’s where the awards tend to happen.
David: And that giving of awards can be like sponsoring a particular award or something like that.
Drew: Yes. Some of the ones they talked about sponsoring, some of them they talked about companies giving awards that had mainly been applied for by people who would be subcontractors to that big contractor.
The second thing they mentioned is that there’s a general concern among people who apply for awards, that success is based mainly on the paperwork. There’s a strong suggestion that awards are won by people who are good at applying rather than on objective evidence.
David: That doesn’t surprise me. I think the research method by interviewing and surveying people, and asking their thoughts on it, doesn’t surprise me. Most of the award schemes would have a set of criteria. Describe this and write this in 200 words, and then explain why. There’s a certain skill to responding to a criteria and I can imagine that people sometimes felt that the award wasn’t necessarily the one who’s safety activities or programs deserve, but the ones who showed out the best application.
Drew: They did mention that this is certainly not universal. It’s not a criticism across all awards. They said that some of the awards, in fact, some of the most prestigious and competitive ones involved site visits by the team giving out the award to verify the information and to see what was happening on the ground.
A couple that I have been tangentially involved in, it’s definitely the case that some of the site visits are almost like information exchange, that these are often people from the biggest subcontractors or from professional organizations. They’re not just going along to judge, but they’re also going along to give feedback and advice on how people are managing safety in smaller businesses.
David: I think also in that paperwork thing, I was just thinking, many times in my experiences, these awards are given out for safety work rather than the safety of work. Their program might be something like “Best Health and Safety Program.” Someone who’s developed a new stop work for more and you post to campaign or something like that can write a really great application. I’ve always been quite disappointed when I see that winners of some awards and the things that they won awards for and think, “Oh gee, it’s just a glossy safety program rather than maybe actually the safety of work being the primary criteria for determining the award.”
Drew: I have to admit that sometimes, I’m at these award ceremonies, particularly if I’m speaking at a conference and there’s an award ceremony attached to the conference. You’re always sitting in a boardroom, now give this little short video or presentation talking about each nomination for the prize. A couple of guys in the company have thought of a really cool way of putting in fence posts that removes some of the difficulty [...]. This project reduced the LTIFR ratios for the project. This person put a new method of risk assessment.
I always find myself rooting for the guys who’ve just invented something cool, something your direct physical change to the way work is done. I thought of always like you’ve grown and think that I have lost when it goes to the people with the glossy paperwork.
The third thing they say (and this is what we’re suggesting before) is that when you ask people why they apply for awards, the leading motives are about external recognition and acknowledgement. That’s got two sides to it. One of them is just that it’s good for the company economically. People apply for awards because it helps the company do well. To be known for doing well for safety.
But there’s a second side to that, which is it’s good for the individuals within the company working on safety to have this success. That’s not necessarily selfish. Having the company know that their safety team is doing well, can lead to the safety team having more support from within the organization, because they’re achieving things and contributing to the organization by winning prizes which win contracts.
David: I think this central question of is it valid to invent safety time and safety resources on organizational and time and resources to specifically seek external recognition? What are your thoughts on how valid or how good or bad that is to safety?
Drew: It is definitely the case. When I say definitely the case, this study says and my own opinions and observations back these up. That certainly, the direct work that goes into applying for the awards is not direct work into improving safety. As well as the work you do for the organization, you’re separately putting time and effort into this application. That is diverting resource method away from one thing that is direct for safety towards something which is far less direct, which is not something I’m personally a fan of. It doesn’t mean it's bad for safety per se, but maybe suboptimal for safety. Not getting the [...] that you could.
David: I think part of this is just the way that the world works in some industries, which means that whether it’s good or bad is not as important as whether it helps business or whether it’s a necessity. If you’re an organization that’s contracting for work, having a number of reputable types of safety awards to put in your tender is a good thing to do. Even more so depending on what your incident rates are like and your company safety system looks like. It’s definitely something that could help your organization win business. In that case, whether it’s good or bad for safety, it doesn’t really matter. If it’s helpful to the business, then it can be legitimate for the organization to focus attention on it.
What's concerning is when companies receive safety awards that they may not otherwise, I don’t know how to say but deserve is probably the right word and then it makes seen your management and others in the organization maybe feel like they’re safer than they should feel like they are, and maybe reduce their effort because we just want this big industry award, so why should we continue to do another big program or invest more? That would be one of my big concerns.
Drew: Hold that thought as a potential spoiler for our second paper, which you haven’t had the chance to look at, David. It’s going to maybe answer that question. It’s certainly troubles me not just in safety, but I remember that universities have got a big focus on gender equity and there are particular awards they give out like gold awards, silver awards, and bronze awards for how well university departments out treating their female employees.
It horrified me that the biggest complaint that some of our staff had was that they kept getting sideline from real work into being made to do the administrative work associated with projects. Some of our brightest researchers got diverted from research to prepare the awards nominations to show how good the department was at gender equity. This is the risk, is if you’re actually not doing well and you’re diverting the resources towards trying to prove that you’re doing well instead of diverting the resources to doing better.
David: Yeah. That’s a big concern. It’s a big concern with safety work when safety work does two things. When it detracts resources from actually being invested towards the safety of work or when it makes the organization potentially feel like it’s safer than it should feel like it is.
Drew: The final thing I want to take out of this paper is definitely there was a feeling that a second [...] in applying for these awards. Secondary but real, like you’re second on the list. It motivates employees. You apply for prizes because it makes people motivated for safety. We feel good, our organization is doing well, we got a prize, let’s do even better.
That’s something that is interesting whether we can actually test, because the counter-thought to that is that in fact the focus is on looking good, hiding incidents and accidents to get a prize, and that the incentive might affect work the other way. I think that is definitely worth checking out. That’s where I think this second paper we’re going to look at is interesting.
David: Just before we go onto that second paper, I’m just reflecting on one of your comments earlier that there hasn’t been that much research in this space since 2000. It actually wouldn’t be that hard for a researcher to get a whole list of award recipients and do some research on those that actually won the award and those that applied and didn’t win the award maybe three or six months afterwards or maybe in the lead up to the next awards round. You could design quite an interesting research study to try to understand the drivers and the outcomes of winning awards and not winning awards. It’ll be interesting to see how you could design that.
Drew: I certainly think there is room just to update this paper from 2000 and to dig a little bit deeper into some of those questions around the ecosystem of awards and the effect they have. I love your idea of “where are they now” study. This is the person who won the award and this is what happened in the next six months. This is the person who lost and this is what happened to them.
David: And what we usually claim about the mechanism, actually trying to make some claims about what we actually think this award is going to do. Is it going to make these organizations have an accident because they’re going to think they’re safer than they’re not? Is it going to make the organization or other parts of the organization try harder and be safer? And if you can find a nice way to design that study, it’d be interesting. It’s a good PhD topic.
Drew: Yeah. This next paper is a behavioral economics paper. There are two big moves in trends in safety research that’s feeding into safety practice. I know it’s getting to be a big thing among regulators and government agencies to have behavioral economics units. Closely related to that is social psychology. They’re both related to [...]. They both get [...] out as your new ways of looking at organizations to improve behavior and to improve decision-making by stepping away from the old behavior-based. It’s an interesting question whether behavioral economics and social psychology are just behavior-based safety a new [...] or with their genuinely new initiative.
I’ll have to admit, David. Maybe you’ve got an opinion and I’d love it if one of our listeners can give me a [...] explanation to see what is the difference between behavioral economics and social psychology.
David: With no preparation, I’m not going to try and give you a definition around that. But I think behavioral-based safety is an active program in organizations where it’s trying to shake the way the organization or individuals within the organization behave. Whereas social psychology is more descriptive and it’s just trying to understand and explain the way that social systems actually operate. Not necessarily to change them, but just to understand them and be able to work within them, recognizing that they have certain characteristics that if you understand those characteristics, then you might be able to leverage the way that the organization works in a better way.
That would be how I think about behavior-based safety and social psychology as being a little bit different. I’m not as familiar with behavioral economics. I know the theory’s moving really, really fast and it comes a little bit more down to how individuals make decisions. Otherwise, towards behavioral economics a little bit like the individual decision-making processes.
Drew: Thanks. I like that as a summary. The way I think about in my head is that behavioral economics is focused mainly on those individual choices. There’s lots of times in the real world when people make decisions and our goal isn’t really to get them to make the right decision. So much as to avoid the fact that by the way we structure that decision, we might accidentally push them into a decision that’s not good for them. We know that that’s possible.
Really simple example. This is one of the ones that I know behavioral economics looked at early on. If you had people at the supermarket decide whether they buy two bags that are 1 kg each or one bag that’s 2 kg each. Traditional economics says there’s a clear right answer. Let’s just assume that everyone makes the right answer. One of the bags is cheaper per kilogram of flour.
In the real world, companies use all sorts of tricks to make us accidentally spend more money. The good view, golden halo version of behavioral economics is about helping people focus on the most relevant factors and decisions and getting rid of the distractions. The research tends to be done one problem at a time and it tends to be done in the field trying to find the problem and fix it.
Whereas social psychology tries to come at those more general principles. It tends to do more experiments in the lab, try to discover some big guiding principle, and then that one principle applies in lots of different situations. That’s the way I see the difference. It’s more about where the research gets done and how general you try to make it. And then, there’s just the simple fact that one gets done in schools of economics, the other gets done in schools of psychology.
David: It wouldn’t be the only thing that’s very similar in, but I got different labels, depending on the different academic discipline that’s researching it. I like the way you describe that. I think behavioral economics has a long history of psychology and economics, and we know that the early behavioral economic theories and things like game theory and all of these other constructs that have come through both economics and psychology, I see in that behavioral economics space. Social psychology is a bit more sociology in a sense of maybe aside that individual transactions and more like when you get a group of people together, what happens.
Drew: In contrast to our last paper which was very, very old, the paper we’re going to look at now is very, very young. It’s by Carly Robinson, Jana Gallus, Monica Lee, and Todd Rogers. I looked them up and Carly is still actually a PhD candidate right now. I wish we’d got her on the podcast to give a quick interview. Maybe we can do a follow up.
Despite still doing a PhD, Carly and her co-authors together have got a big string of publications. Almost every publication is a big field experiment. They’re not in safety, they’re in education. As best as I can gather from the publication and their profile, Carly’s interest is in how do you motivate students, particularly to make them show up to school. She’s interested in how to really, really rigorously test what doesn’t motivate students. The paper title is the worst spoiler we’ve had so far. It’s The demotivating effect (and unintended message) of awards.
I don't think I need to give you the summary of the paper, that’s the conclusion, but I’ll talk a little bit about the method. It’s an experiment that tests whether giving awards to students improves their attendance. Massive study, over 15,000 students. All of these students have had at least one month when they’ve had perfect attendance.
The dependent variable, the outcome we’re measuring is how often the students miss school. The independent variable, the thing that we’re changing, is whether or not we give them an award. The control students get nothing. The student with a prospective award, they get told that if they have perfect attendance in the month that coming up, they’re going to get an award. In the retrospective condition, they get told, “Hey, you’ve already had a month of perfect attendance, here’s an award.”
There are two predictions. The first one is that students getting an award that will improve your attendance. The hypothesis is that awards are motivating. The second hypothesis is that the prospect of award will work better. It’s more motivating to know that you might get an award than to be given an award. At least that’s the hypothesis.
It turns out that the second one is true. Offering them an award in future does work better than giving them an award now. But the catch is, that’s only true because giving them an award now actually makes them worse. David, you were saying before, what happens when people get an award, they think they’re good so that they don’t need to work as hard. Bingo.
David: Did I get that right then, but neither effect was any better than just normal absentees and without the prospect of an award at all.
Drew: That’s right. Getting an award doesn’t seem to motivate people for higher attendance (and we’ll get into that a little bit in a moment), but certainly after getting an award, people drop off again. We can find a bit more sophisticated explanation, but it’s basically that thing you said. Once they have gotten an award, they’re fairly doing well. That’s not motivation.
David: Yeah. Maybe if they’re doing a little bit better than others because obviously they won the award and other people didn’t, then they can make more concessions to still consider themselves above average or above the main, so to speak. I can understand how that would happen.
I think in this environment, even though I was not directly a safety sort of event, you can assume that the motivation to just do the behavior in the first place, to turn up at class and not skip class if you’re trying to get a degree or to work safely to keep yourself safe. There’s enough task motivation there that it’s like we’re having to provide an award for someone to do something they otherwise wouldn’t want to be doing.
Drew: And that’s spot on in this study. When they confirmed the absentees to the student grades, they found that the students are doing okay at school are already highly motivated to attend. They feel good about school, they get good grades, they get positive feedback from their teacher. Getting a letter that says, “Congratulations you’ve got an attendance award,” was just insignificant compared to all the intrinsic and other ways they feel good about what they’re doing.
I think that is a direct parallel to safety as well, that there’s so much motivation that is so much bigger than we do have a piece of paper saying safety prize, and so many other reasons to care about safety. But for the people who weren’t doing so well, it seems like the award acted as permission to slack off. They’re not feeling very motivated to attend school, they’re not feeling that they’re not doing very well, but they’ve been told that they are meeting expectations at least. That’s almost like permission. You’re doing a bit better than you know you did. You got award worthy behavior. If you feel like slacking off, that’s okay.
David: You could clearly understand the situation when the safety department has prepared a really nice, great award application for a program that they have run and they win this award. The managing director at the company comes along and accepts the award and feels like they’re doing really, really well. Obviously, you can make decisions to say, “Maybe we can put all these extra discretionary effort into another part of the organization where we haven’t won an award or we haven’t done so well. The safety part might actually be like shooting itself in the foot for not getting the award, but they’re not getting resources necessary to do the next year of work.
Drew: Yeah. We’ve just proven that we don’t need that extra staff member we asked for.
The title of the paper has this word signaling in it. The researchers thought that maybe there’s something a little bit more subtle going on. They did another experiment, this one isn’t as rigorous as the first one. The first one was 15,000 plus real world students. The second experiment was a little dinky online experiment with 300 participants. They’ve got a range of ages, most of them are young adults. Instead of actually giving them an award, they’re saying, “How would you feel if…”
In this second study, they were testing specifically this idea that the awards tells people what the school expects of them. If you get an award, that tells you that you’re doing better than the school expects. If you don’t get an award, that tells you you’re doing worse than the school expects.
That signaling effect tells you whether you need to up your game or whether it’s okay to slack off. If you’re missing 10 days of school a year, but you get an award for the one month you just happen to have perfect attendance, then you tell yourself, “Okay, the school doesn’t think I’m doing badly. They think 10 days is fine. They must give me an award.” Whereas if you miss 10 days of school and everyone gets an award and you don’t, you then go, “Okay, maybe the school expects me to do more of this.” So you do aim a bit better.
Whether that precisely is how it works, there’s a core strong message here that giving the awards has a demotivating effect. And there’s a slightly more subtle, less strong idea that the reason for the demotivating effect is because it signals expectations.
David: We tried to generalize these two safety where the authors probably didn’t intend it to be generalized. To kick off maybe some practical takeaways, the options here are either not to have an award scheme or to have an award scheme, but never hand one out.
Drew: I both like that and I’m a little bit horrified that that’s your take away, is how can we use this to cynically manipulate people for the right motivations. I think you’re right. In fact, this is one of the core lessons of behavioral economics is don’t extrapolate too much. We’re going to try to give takeaways that are not over extrapolating, they’re instead looking for the core message here.
I think the first one is just don’t assume that offering an award automatically motivates people. There’s an underlying pattern that incentives can work in both directions and it’s very easy for them to accidentally work in the exact opposite way you intend. We shouldn’t take away the message of this is how to make an incentive work, but we should definitely take away a message, don’t just assume that offering an incentive creates incentive.
Second one there is that don’t assume that motivation equals doing what you want. You can be motivated to win an award and it causes all sorts of perverse behavior. As for the first paper, you may be motivating people to spend time riding awards rather than motivating them to improve safety.
David: Or (I think what you said) the award might be for most improved safety performance, so you might be motivating people to not report incidents and things like that. If the motivation to win the award is greater than the motivation to maybe do what you want or expect people to do, then you need to understand that you might be pushing people in different directions.
Drew: This next one I wrote down, but I’m really interested in your opinion on it, David, is that is improving safety the only worthwhile thing for a safety practitioner to do? Reading between the lines in what you said earlier, I’m thinking that you think that safety practitioners can just do other stuff that isn’t for safety, but is good for the company. That’s a legitimate and valuable way to be spending time. Is that what you meant to say?
David: I think during the paper that we wrote to transform the safety profession, we talked about the safety profession having a responsibility to contribute to organizational success. I have a responsibility to contribute to safety, but also, a role that they play in sales, efficiency, product production, climate, culture, and a whole range of other things because the organization doesn’t exist just to be safe.
That idea obviously comes at a cost if the safety resources are spending time doing non-safety-related work or other organizational goals, then that can compromise them delivering on their safety goals. Certain amounts of flexibility is warranted in all organization departments now.
There’s the other side where maybe the safety department contributing to broader organization objectives outside of safety makes them seen as more of a team player and more credible, rather than just staying in their box and doing their safety things but not having the relationships or the ability to influence more broadly.
Drew: Being a team player in that sense has to be better than safety than being a team player by sometimes compromising safety to pick your battles. This is genuinely good for the organization. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt safety. You’re recognizing people, making them feel good about themselves, and maybe give your organization a marketing edge. I’d like safety people not to feel that there’s something evil in helping the organization make money.
David: No, I think quite the opposite. The safety organization is to feel that it is part of their responsibility to help the organization make money in a safe way because ultimately they are the priorities that the CEO and the management are trying to balance every day.
Drew: The final thing that I wanted to throw in, I know we’ve got some listeners who are very much into the new view in Safety Differently and Safety II. I don’t want to get the sense that the word “behavior” doesn’t automatically make something unscientific even if you ask strongly in the new view. It’s a fact of organizations that sometimes, decisions made by individuals do matter and helping people with those decisions is not evil.
There’s lots of basic conclusions from behavioral economics that we can learn from. Most of them point squarely in the same direction as Safety Differently and Safety II. There’s a whole tranche of papers in behavioral economics about how longer you make a form the less likely people are to fill it out accurately, which is an incredibly Safety II behavioral economics finding.
David: I agree. These end to the spectrum that we find ourselves debating at the moment now in safety is not as helpful as looking at the whole spectrum of research findings and what’s useful within that. We also talked about in the episode on the authority to stop work, about how useful rules can be in enabling people to stop people in safe situations. I think for a new view listeners, be a professional who’s curious about all different ideas in safety and all different ideas in a broader organization disciplines.
Drew: We’ve run out of time again. For our invitation to the listeners this week, I’m just going to call back to the comment David made. There’s very little research on safety awards. If any of our listeners who are students looking for a master’s project, simple bit of work looking at safety awards, why people run them, why people apply for them, what effect it has, I think would be a really cool project for someone to do. Could be a PhD, could be something smaller than that. Good project for someone doing a coursework masters in [...] I think, to have a look at safety awards. Also, I came to hear if any of our listeners have been part of a safety award recently. Do you think that they have changed from when that paper was or do you think these lessons from the 2000s still hold?
David: That’s it for this week. We hope you found this episode thought-provoking and ultimately useful in shaping the safety of work in your own organization. Send any comments, questions, or ideas to future episodes to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.