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Bingo! You Lose!
(And Other Unsafe Acts)

UE News, June 2000

By David Kotelchuck

As anti-labor attacks on OSHA increase, and managers seek to cover up worker injuries and illnesses on the job, employers are trying to revive discredited workplace safety programs and theories. Recently workers of various industries around the country have seen an increase in so-called safety incentive programs such as "Safety Bingo."

These schemes (often called behavioral safety programs) are based on the theory that 80 to 95 percent of all accidents and injuries on the job are caused by improper "worker behavior." So when an accident occurs, the injured worker is investigated to see what he or she did wrong! Sometimes workers are encouraged to report co-workers suspected of "unsafe acts."

The theory ignores employers’ legal (and moral) responsibility to ensure workplaces are "free from recognized hazards," to use a phrase from the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Employers are required by the law to prevent hazards through substitution of less dangerous materials, improved ventilation, proper machine-guarding, lockout-tagout systems, etc.


A variation of the worker-responsibility theme is the Safety Bingo program, which focuses on reducing the reporting of workplace incidents. For example, according to a recent AFL-CIO Health and Safety Fact Sheet:

  • In one workplace in the State of Washington, an employer offered employees three transit tokens, worth $1 each when they went one month without reporting a work injury or illness, such as carpal tunnel syndrome or heat stress. Additional tokens were given if the entire workforce did not report a workplace injury for one-quarter of the year.

  • In another effort, often used in many industries, a Midwestern employer invited all workers who did not report a work injury or illness for the past year to a dinner given by the company. At the dinner, one name was drawn from the hat, and the winner given a check for $10,000.

What’s wrong with this? some might say. Well, in the first place, it gives workers an incentive for not reporting work-related injuries and illnesses. Unions, and OSHA, properly put their emphasis on preventing workplace injuries and illnesses. In these employer programs, workers are encouraged to work while injured if they can. If the injury is worse than first thought or gets aggravated (or both), the worker does not have an early diagnosis and medical treatment for it and may have lost the right to claim workers’ compensation for the accident. And if a workplace hazard caused or contributed to the accident and is not eliminated, it may come back to injure others in the future.

In many companies workers are shifted to an easier job while recovering to keep from reporting an injury. What do the companies gain from this? They keep their OSHA logs clear of these injuries and illnesses. They may get better ratings from insurance companies, which translates into saving money on insurance premiums. And if their reported injury rates are less than the industry average, OSHA might even ask them to join a preferred plan, like the so-called VPP, in which the company will be visited less often by OSHA inspectors. So these kinds of safety programs really do pay — for management.


When things get down and dirty and the management gloves come off, some employers these days are returning to injury discipline programs. Workers are disciplined if they suffer and/or report work injuries and illnesses. For example, one company in Oklahoma sent a letter to its employees after a string of back injuries was reported:

"It is your responsibility to perform your job in a safe manner to ensure that you are not a safety hazard to yourself or others. To remain in the employment of ______, your safety performance must be satisfactory to management. If you are involved in another unsafe act while at work, management will investigate the incident as well as your safety performance and will determine the status of your employment, which may include discipline up to and including discharge."

In New York City, one Teamster local reports, an employer had set up a point system in which each worker is given a certain number of points for reporting a work injury, filing a workers’ comp claim, etc. When enough points are accumulated, discipline follows.

Many lawyers believe that such programs violate Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH Act), which states that workers cannot be punished for exercising their rights under the law. Punishing workers for reporting work injuries certainly appears to be a violation of this provision. If any attempt is made to do this to UE members, local officers and the health and safety committee should contest this action vigorously, including filing a grievance under the union contract, and perhaps filing an OSHA claim for violation of Section 11(c).

Some health and safety specialists consider safety bingo and other safety incentive programs a violation of Section 11(c), since they discriminate against those who report work injuries and illnesses to OSHA.


At a recent health and safety conference sponsored by NYCOSH (the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health), we asked the head of OSHA for the agency’s views on behavioral safety programs. While not attacking them outright, Assistant Secretary of Labor Charles Jeffress said that health and safety training programs which involve blame-the-worker themes "should not be considered good training."

Technically, the best ways to eliminate health and safety hazards on the job are to implement what health and safety professionals call the "hierarchy of controls."" That is, first try to use engineering methods such as local exhaust ventilation or substitution of less dangerous products to eliminate or control a hazard. To supplement these efforts, or if they don’t work, use administrative controls such as warning signs, frequent rest breaks and training programs.

Finally, the least effective methods, but ones which need to be used if engineering and administrative controls don’t work or don’t give enough protection, are use of personal protective equipment, such as hard-hats, respirators, ear-plugs or earmuffs, protective gloves, etc.

But beyond all technical means of protecting you from hazards, it is hard to protect your health and safety when you are working as an individual. In health and safety, as in all other workplace problems, the union makes you strong.

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