Although focused on U.S. coal miners, a recent study highlights some major injury-reporting concerns that may apply to the industry in general

By Robert H. Peters and Carin Kosmoski, Ph.D

What do miners believe will be the consequences of reporting safety incidents such as near misses, hazardous conditions and minor injuries? If miners are at all uncertain about whether it is safe to proceed with a job, do they always stop to find out, or just go ahead and hope for the best?

The way miners answer these questions is critical to preventing injuries, illnesses and even mining disasters. It may seem obvious how miners should answer such questions. What may not be so obvious is how management practices and bonus programs at U.S. coal mining operations may be impacting the way miners answer these questions.

How often do workers fail to report safety incidents? Recent research suggests that employees frequently under-report nonfatal occupational injuries and safety incidents—i.e., they fail to notify appropriate company officials when a safety incident has occurred. Indeed, such research suggests that approximately 60% of all experienced injuries are not captured in databases maintained by government regulatory agencies (Leigh et al., 2004; Rosenman et al., 2006). Researchers have proposed many lists of potential reasons for worker under-reporting of safety incidents (e.g., United States Government Accountability Office, 2009; Leigh et al., 2004; Pransky et al., 1999). Among the more commonly cited reasons are:

  • Fear of jeopardizing rewards that are based on having low injury rates;
  • Peer pressure (concern that co-workers would lose a bonus or a chance to win something);
  • Fear of management reprisals or retaliation;
  • Not understanding rules/expectations concerning which types of events should be reported;
  • Not wanting to be thought of as a complainer or troublemaker;
  • Believing an injury is too minor for anyone to be concerned; and
  • Believing that injuries are “a fact of life” in certain lines of work.

Recent U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) research suggests that many coal miners have concerns about how management will react if they report safety concerns to management (Kosmoski 2014). To explore these potential reasons, NIOSH conducted safety culture assessments at five underground coal mines between 2009 and 2012. Even though this is a small sample size, in the course of performing these assessments, researchers observed management practices and bonus programs that seem to either encourage or discourage employees from raising safety concerns and reporting safety incidents. The primary intent of this article is to call mine management’s attention to practices that may be discouraging miners from reporting important safety-related information.

Management’s Receptiveness to Miners’ Concerns and Ideas
Broadly, miners’ willingness to share concerns and ideas with management depends on how they expect the information to be received. Do they believe management desires this type of information and will take appropriate actions to correct problems? Or, do they think management does not want to be bothered, and will not do anything to resolve the problems? Do they think they will be assigned additional work or onerous tasks to correct the problems they identify? Do they anticipate that management will view them as troublemakers or complainers, and try to retaliate in some way?

As part of NIOSH’s assessment of safety culture, they asked miners to respond to several interview questions and questionnaire items to try to determine miners’ perceptions about their company’s receptiveness to workers’ concerns and ideas. NIOSH’s assessments of coal mine safety culture were conducted using methods and techniques developed by Dr. Sonja Haber (Haber & Barriere, 1998).

According to Dr. Haber, who has almost three decades of experience in assessing organizational safety culture, an important indicator of a strong, positive safety culture is the extent to which employees feel free to raise concerns of any type without the fear of retaliation or reprisal. This perception is critical to ensuring that safety problems can be identified before they become significant events. Unfortunately, this perception was not found to be prevalent among a large portion of the workforce at the five mines NIOSH assessed. Their assessments involved asking all mine employees to respond to a 61-item survey about their mine’s safety culture using multiple choice rating scales. As the following statistics show, many miners perceived the existence of significant inhibitors to reporting safety concerns, mistakes and other problems to management.

  • Only 45.7% of the survey respondents agreed with the statement: “Management does not tolerate retaliation of any kind for raising concerns.”
  • Only 55.7% of survey respondents indicated that they believed their concerns were addressed constructively.
  • Only 49.7% of survey respondents indicated that they believed they could openly challenge decisions made by management.
  • Only 49.5% of the survey respondents indicated that they believed that helpful criticism was encouraged.

The fact that roughly half of the 1,356 miners responding to the research survey did not agree with these statements suggests that many had reservations about bringing up problems and concerns to management. Although their reasons for responding this way are not entirely clear, the absence of this type of communication can detract from management’s ability to learn about problems that could result in accidents and other types of significant losses if they are not addressed.

Implementation of Bonus Programs
There appears to be a prevailing belief among the five mining companies that participated in NIOSH’s safety culture assessments that bonus programs are an effective means of influencing workers to perform better. However, as discussed below, if not properly designed, bonus plans can undermine the reporting of safety concerns, and even lead to an increase in unsafe behaviors. The mines surveyed typically employed one or more of the following types of bonus programs: injury-based, production-based and time-based.

Injury-based Bonuses
Injury-based bonus plans reward workers for reducing or eliminating injuries during an established period of time. Four of the five mines assessed offered money or tangible rewards to all of their miners if no one at the mine reported an injury during an upcoming time period, e.g., the next month. In some cases, employees could earn substantial sums of additional money for reducing or eliminating reportable injuries.

At first glance, this type of incentive may seem to be an effective way to improve miners’ safety. Indeed, some researchers have reported successfully using financial rewards or tangible gifts to improve mine safety performance (Fox et al., 1987). However, it is important to note that, when rewards are tied to reductions in the number of reportable injuries, a disincentive for reporting them can also occur.

As the following quotes illustrate, some of the miners interviewed during the safety culture assessments were concerned that their mine’s safety bonus program was having such an effect.

“During the more than 500-day no-injury streak for one shift at this mine, there were actually injuries, including a broken leg, broken foot, and basically these people had one day to go to the doctor and then they would be back at work the next day. If they were physically unable to work, then they would still come to work, but instead of doing their job they would be in the office for the day to hang out.”

“Everyone realizes management is committed to safety but sometimes guys question the methods they use. For example, the bonuses. Last year, (a co-worker) was injured and as a result I did not get the bonus. I personally don’t care, but others may have an issue with this. Also, a few years back I knew someone who was injured but didn’t want to report it because everyone on their shift would be mad at them for messing up the bonus.”

Most of the mines’ bonus plans were set up to reward groups of individuals if everyone in the group worked for a period of time without experiencing any reportable injuries. This type of bonus plan can produce a mix of both positive and negative effects on safety behaviors. As the quotes above illustrate, group-based incentive plans can create social pressure on individuals not to report injuries—especially minor injuries. Unfortunately, over time, untreated minor injuries can become serious and ultimately result in greater costs for both employees and employers. On the positive side, group-based safety incentive plans can also serve to motivate workers to watch out for each other and to correct unsafe conditions so that no one gets hurt and everyone gets their bonus.

Commenting on worker incentive plans in a 2010 speech, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels said, “We have found that incentive programs based primarily on injury and illness numbers often have the effect of discouraging workers from reporting an injury or illness.”

In a subsequent speech, Dr. Michaels added, “We can get behind incentive programs that reward workers for demonstrating safe work practices, reporting hazards or near misses, or participating in health and safety training or on a health and safety committee.”

Only one of the five mines assessed had a program to systematically reward miners for taking actions to prevent accidents. Most mines were focused on withholding rewards if injuries occurred. Behavioral scientists generally do not advocate such an approach. Rather, they advocate the identification and quantitative measurement of safety-related behaviors (Wirth & Sigurdsson 2008).

Most often, relevant safety-related behaviors are targeted for change (e.g., wearing appropriate personal protective equipment), rather than probable adverse health or safety consequences of those behaviors (e.g., injuries, illness or lost-time incidents). Behavioral scientists usually consider consequences such as injuries and illnesses to be too remote, infrequent or uncertain to be used as the basis for a reward system. They advocate for tying bonuses to the precursors of occupational injuries and illnesses. Precursors are factors that influence the likelihood of accidents, and that can be observed and measured. They might include the prevalence of hazardous conditions in the workplace, or the number of times people are observed performing safety-related behaviors.

To apply these principles to examples from mining, behavioral scientists might recommend offering rewards to workers for consistently performing safety-enhancing behaviors, e.g., using wheel chocks, checking methane gas levels. They might also recommend offering rewards to workers for eliminating at-risk behaviors, and eliminating situations that increase the chances of themselves and others performing at-risk behaviors. At-risk behaviors are ones that increase workers’ risk of harm, e.g., going under unsupported mine roof. As another example of tying a bonus to a precursor, rewards could be offered for consistently posting signs near the edge of areas of unsupported mine roof. When these signs are missing, miners sometimes inadvertently travel beyond the last row of roof bolts. Workers should also be encouraged to be proactive about accident prevention, such as reporting near misses, identifying and correcting hazards, and suggesting ways to improve safety.

Finally, an important potential negative outcome of injury-based bonus plans is that safety incidents may go unreported, and the organization does not learn about safety problems that are likely to continue to arise unless appropriate countermeasures are taken. Based on the survey responses from the five mines in this study, the current structure of incentive programs at some mines appears to be deterring individuals from reporting safety incidents. Several programs are reactive and only reduce incentives for behaviors that are detrimental to production (e.g., extended absences, lost-time accidents) rather than also rewarding behaviors that are proactive and positive for safety (e.g., wearing PPE, identifying mistakes and hazardous conditions). It can be argued that utilizing injury rate-based incentive programs may not be encouraging employees to work safer. Instead, such programs may be rewarding employees either for taking risks but being lucky enough not to have accidents, or for not reporting incidents when they do happen.

Production-based Bonuses
Production-based bonuses reward workers for achieving higher output (e.g., in the case of mining, producing a greater amount of coal). Research on production-based bonus plans suggests that firms with such plans experience significantly higher injury rates than firms without them. Kaminski (2001) suggests that performance-contingent pay systems can lead to increased work pace and reduced adherence to equipment maintenance schedules, each of which increases chances of injuries. The negative consequences of production-based bonus plans are particularly evident when the amounts of the bonuses are large, and when inadequate attention is being focused on basic aspects of the safety program such as controlling/eliminating worker exposure to hazards, and providing workers with the training and equipment they need to prevent accidents.

All five of the mines NIOSH assessed were offering bonuses to miners for achieving goals related to the amount of coal mined. Although NIOSH did not ask for, nor were provided with, the actual amounts of these bonuses, comments from several of the miners interviewed suggested that these bonuses were substantial at some mines. It is possible that the practice of offering substantial production-based bonuses can lead miners to take dangerous shortcuts and to perform certain tasks too fast (e.g., driving mobile equipment). Such bonus programs may also cause workers to neglect maintenance and repair of equipment if they think the equipment will keep running long enough to achieve the tonnage required to earn their bonuses.

A strict emphasis on production and the time it takes a miner to do his/her work can simultaneously decrease an emphasis on safety. When miners are focused on production, reporting safety relevant information can take a back seat to output and efficiency. This is because raising safety issues and reporting accidents takes time, and the time it takes to communicate these issues is in direct competition with his or her total compensation. In other words, safety-related communications are necessary to prevent accidents, but the time it takes to do this may be perceived as having negative consequences for production and efficiency, especially when those are the primary metrics used to determine the amount of bonus an employee receives.

Time-based Bonuses
Time-based bonuses reward workers for completing a job within a prescribed period of time (e.g., two weeks), or by a certain date. For example, one of the mines visited offered a two-part bonus plan for moving their longwall equipment. The first part of the plan offered to pay everyone a bonus if the longwall move was completed within a specific number of days. The second part of the plan offered to pay everyone an equally large bonus if the longwall move was completed without a single lost time injury.

Moving longwall equipment presents several potential challenges to safety:

  • Because the mine produces little if any coal during the longwall move, miners may experience pressure to work quickly to get back into coal production and keep the mine profitable. If problems arise, they may work longer hours than normal.
  • Most mines with longwall equipment need to move it only once or twice a year. The rest of the time the focus is on mining coal. During the move, miners often operate equipment and perform tasks that they do not normally perform, and they may not be as familiar with the associated risks and hazards, or the habits and expectations of those working around them.
  • Longwall equipment is extremely large and heavy. Those who disassemble, move, and reassemble it often work in difficult conditions that may include uneven and muddy floors, darkness, tight quarters and close proximity to powerful machinery.

A few miners voiced concerns about being offered bonuses for completing longwall moves quickly:

  • “The date they set for the goal completion date was unattainable, yet they set it so people were working fast to try to reach it.”
  • “The longwall move time bonus makes people hurry and it’s gonna bite us one of these times.”
  • “If someone was injured during the longwall move and reported it, then everyone would hate that person. You might as well leave the mine because you would be ostracized.”
  • “I don’t think management thought they’d ever have to pay the (safety) bonus because moving a longwall without an injury is rare.”

As demonstrated by the last quote, it could be interpreted that the mine may have been attempting to discourage miners from working too fast or taking dangerous shortcuts during the longwall move by offering a “safety bonus.” However, as previously mentioned, the fact that safety bonuses were tied to not reporting any lost-time injuries may have served to discourage miners from reporting injuries. Having separate longwall move bonuses for completing the move by a certain deadline (reward for speed) and for doing it without a lost-time injury (reward for safety) presented a conflicting message to miners about the importance of working safely.

Many factors play a role in influencing miners’ willingness to report safety-related information. Mine management’s receptiveness to such reports and bonus programs are two such factors over which mine management has a great deal of control. Bonus plans clearly have the potential to motivate positive changes in workers’ safety-related behaviors and attitudes if they are properly designed. The design of an effective bonus plan is a bit more complex than one might first think. Plans sometimes fail to produce the positive outcomes that had been hoped for, and they can also produce unintended negative consequences. As this article discusses, large production-based or time-based bonuses may give workers the impression that production is valued over safety and may cause miners to work in an unsafe manner just to meet production goals or tight deadlines. Further, large injury-based bonuses may cause workers to fail to report minor injuries and other incidents that are important for managers to know about in order to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.

Does this mean that mine bonus plans should be eliminated? No. At some mines, bonuses currently constitute a large portion of miners’ total compensation. At such mines it may not be wise to simply eliminate them. As the research studies reviewed by Wirth & Sigurdsson (2008) and Peters (1991) suggests, a better alternative may be to offer more modest-sized bonuses and to begin tying safety bonuses to the precursors of occupational injuries and illnesses. Specifically, miners could be rewarded for (1) performing safety-enhancing behaviors, (2) not performing at-risk behaviors, and (3) taking actions that help facilitate the rapid identification and correction of workplace hazards. Employees could also be rewarded for “working smarter”—for learning new skills and for suggesting new ways to improve their mine’s safety, productivity and efficiency.

The mining environment is dynamic and ever-changing. New hazards can emerge quickly. Therefore, it is vital that mine managers encourage everyone who works at their mine to be on the lookout for hazards and to report safety incidents and other issues affecting safety and production.

The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Mentioning any company or product does not constitute endorsement by NIOSH.

Robert Peters is a manager in the Office of Mine Safety and Health Research at NIOSH. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-386-6895. Dr. Carin Kosmoski is a health communications researcher in the Office of Mine Safety and Health Research at NIOSH. She can be reached at [email protected] or 412-386-6649.

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