Still Rewarding for Injury Rates???

Wouldn’t it be nice if we developed a reward system for our children and it worked giving the results we wanted? Wouldn’t it be great if we could get our teenagers and young people to respond to the rewards and incentives we provide so they might keep themselves out of harm, take less risks and keep out of trouble? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could keep people out of gaol with reward and punishment systems, if we could stop drink driving or domestic violence with some behaviourist reward system? Anyone with children, partners and families knows that raw behaviourist reward systems don’t work. Even when they seem to work or we attribute effectiveness to them it’s not because of the behaviourist reward but rather a host of other unseen motivational, social and psychological factors that are attached to the reward.

Why do some think that simplistic reward systems (inputs and outputs) will work with adults when it comes to risk and safety? Why do we think that simple inputs and outputs, punishments and rewards will get an outcome as if life and work were simple? What happens when we attach KPIs and rewards to safety outcomes and worse still injury rates?

I wrote a bit about this a while ago ( and am surprised that here I am again discussing the bleeding obvious. It’s 101 in psychology that any goal has an equal and opposite incentive hidden in its design. Even if one accepts the naïve assumptions of behaviourism one should know that rewarding one thing eg. low injury rates, must provide other incentives (by-products and trade-offs) to under report injuries. Why do people still undertake such ideas as KPIs for injury rates when we know that injury rates are not indicator of safety?

Unfortunately, cultural mythology is so powerful in the industry and fundamental attribution error so strong that most organisations still believe that low injury rates are a demonstration of safety. Then when injury rates vary they need linguistic gymnastics in attribution to explain why data moves about so much.

What is it about Safety that sets its mind on all this simplistic stuff and then get’s surprised at a coronial inquiry to find out that their culture rewarded everything that was wrong. You only have to look at the Banking Royal Commission ( to realize that all KPIs, goals and targets have cultural by-products that undermine naïve and simplistic behaviourist goals. But here we are once again, discussing the naivety and simplistic nonsense of rewarding executives for low injury rates. When will organisations stop encouraging the wrong thing?

Didn’t Safety learn anything from the Texas City Disaster ( Of course the findings of enquiries that followed demonstrated after the explosion that ‘workers feared reprisals for reporting potentially risky conditions at the refinery’. This is because BP had developed an incentive and reward scheme via KPIs for low injury rates in their quest for zero. Several inquiries following the disaster (2007 and 2009) by the Federal Government Accountability Office found: that safety incentive programs for injury rates ‘provide disincentives for workers to report injuries and illnesses to their employers.’ (

Surely, this is 101 in the psychology of goals??? Nevertheless, BP repeated exactly the same problem in the Deepwater Horizon One Disaster ( ). The day BP were handing out awards on the platform for 7 years with a zero TRIFR rate they killed 11 people and poured 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico killing millions of wildlife in the name of zero harm. Such is the power of cultural mythology, zero harm indeed.

Unfortunately, the psychosis of the industry’s fixation with behaviourism and the nonsense idea that you can only ‘measure what matters’, drives this persisting mythology associated with measuring performance against injury rates. There’s more evidence for Santa Clause than there is for the mythology that KPIs for injury rates actually works. Everything that counts can’t be counted.

The fundamentals of the psychology of goals (Deci, Higgins, Moskowitz and Grant) make clear that for every direct observable goal there are equal and subversive goals at work that cannot been seen. The dynamic (Figure 1. The Subversion of Goals) looks like this:

Figure 1. The Subversion of Goals


Goal setting is not neutral, neither are reward systems, KPI programs or incentive/motivation programs. Indeed, all these programs and schemes hide a host of values, psychological factors and anthropological beliefs that often drive the opposite of what they claim to achieve. All goals compete (Cameron and Quinn 1999) and are not just about numbers and targets. Goals and targets are psychological constructs tied to motivational factors, many of which are not known at the time goals are set. Indeed, few people in the safety industry have undertaken enough research and study to understand the complexities of what their organisations are doing. A host of invisible and unseen factors associated with how people respond to goals emerge from sub-cultures in organisations, hidden cultural values and societal norms that often don’t emerge for several years. The way this occurs is illustrated at Figure 2. Competing Goals, By-Products and Trajectories.

Figure 2. Competing Goals, By-Products and Trajectories.


Goal setting is complex and operates on six levels as illustrated in Figure 3. Layers of Goals.

Figure 3. Layers of Goals.


When considering the function of competing goals within a defined area or in risk and safety reward systems there emerges a range of critical competing factors that must be considered, these are:

· Approach vs Avoidance motivation

· Goal setting vs Goal Pursuit

· Goal priming, framing, pitch and anchoring

· Regulatory focus vs self-regulation

· Affect vs Expectancies

· Explicit action vs Implicit cognition

· External vs internal focus

· Maintenance and Integration vs positioning and differentiation

· Mechanistic dynamics vs organic/ecological factors

· Flexibility/adaptability vs Control and stability

· Autocratic vs Adhocratic vs Democratic vs Bureaucratic politics

When considering the fundamentals of the psychology of motivation and goals, there is much that happens unconsciously and much that cannot be measured. For those who naively approach goal setting and reward for performance from a behaviourist perspective most of the above are simply not known. Nice to have a naïve plan then wonder why you don’t achieve your goals.

Setting goals based on naïve behaviourist assumptions about humans as the sum of inputs and outputs is a recipe for disaster. When someone ties financial reward to overt goals, all of the hidden covert beliefs and values running on silent in subversive goals only emerge later, perhaps in a court case or coronial enquiry show that paying KPIs for injury rates and TRIFR drives sub-cultures dynamics of denial, trade-off and by-products such as BP discovered on several costly occasions.

Custers (2009, p.184 in The Psychology of Goals, eds Moskowitz, G.B, & Grant. New York. The Guilford Press.) links a number of key ‘goal- based’ elements which provide clarity when analysing and discussing safety incentive schemes from a psychological, cognitive and motivational construct. He states:

‘Affective information plays a role in instigating motivational elements that propel the execution of instrumental actions and maintain the accessibility of the goal representation in the service of the primed goal which makes persistent flexible action possible’.

Unfortunately, naive publications like those by Safework Australia on Measuring and Reporting on Work Health and Safety (2017) ( simply confirm the behaviourist mindset complete with matrices and pyramids with no mention of the psychology of goals or the complexities of motivation. You will find even less help from the AIHS Body of Knowledge not least of all from the latest Chapter on Ethics that doesn’t even tackle the unethical issues associated with KPIs for safety performance, nor any discussion about how the ideology of zero drives all this measurement delusion and its toxic by-products.

Similarly, don’t get too excited if you think the remedy is to report and pay KPIs for lead indicators. Greg Smith demonstrates conclusively that this doesn’t work either ( The problem is not the issue of reward but rather the behaviourist zero ideology that drives the system of reward and what one thinks is of reward value.

The only way to use rewards in organisations, particularly financial rewards is through careful, intelligent and research-based processes that take into account as much of the cultural complexity of the organization as possible.

I am working with tier one construction company at the moment who are running an incentive scheme pilot on one of their sites and even after extensive training the people involved still don’t get the complexities of what is going on. Most people think incentives are just inputs and outputs and then when problems, complaints and perceptions arise wonder why their framing of the system has backfired. One cannot separate the method from the methodology (incentive philosophy and psychology).

Incentive systems and rewards can work and can be effective if structured, strategized and delivered properly. Even then, none of this should be tied to injury rates but must be anchored to higher order goals rather than lower order goals.

If you want more information about reward systems and the psychology of goals or an assessment of your KPI process contact: rob@human 

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

9 Replies to “Still Rewarding for Injury Rates???”

  1. also this:

    Explicit warnings against the counting and r3warding of injury rates.

    eg. ‘Given the potential for under-reporting and the other negative effects associated with payment schemes based on outcome measures and the lack of evidence of value from them, we recommend that such schemes should not be used in the industry’.

    However, if you are an addicted to the cult of zero and behaviourism, this will make no difference.

    1. Even the Church of OSHA formally outlawed this practice back in 2014ish – unfortunately they only outlawed direct financial incentives – still plenty of reward for zero, even if not overt or direct (ive seen it written in Tier 1 contracts: “achieve zero or contract cancelled”)

      1. Email this week from safety person in tier 1 with 6 different financial KPIs for injury rates. – zero harm organisation

  2. Not too many of the submissions to the recent Queensland parliamentary public hearing covering the Mineral and Energy Resources and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2020 appear to address this widespread encumbrance throughout the resources sector of awarding substantial performance bonuses to meet extraordinary production and safety targets.

    Indeed many respondents reinforce their passion and dedication towards safety yet the parliamentary inquiry into black lung revealed…a catastrophic failure at every structural level of a system that was intended to protect the health and safety of people working in coal mines.

    The current toll for mine dust lung diseases exceeds 130 victims. Irrespective of whether SSEs are engaged as employees or contractors excessive exposure to respirable coal dust in underground coal mines was overlooked for years and left many asleep at the wheel.

    It makes me wonder how many have bothered reading the report and the late Michael Foot’s quote resonates…..”Men of power have no time to read, yet men who do not read are unfit for power”

    1. I have never seen the AIHS or NSCA come out against it and its not in the BoK. When you discourse is zero then injury rates must be your measure of safety and of course when you are addicted to measurement then KPIs for TRIFR are the natural outcome. Then when it is noramlised and mythologised in culture, you can’t get rid of it despite the fact it is completely meaningless and dangerous to the organisation. Most in safety have no idea of the power of ideologies nor the semiotics anchored to them.

  3. I spent this morning in the public gallery at the Queensland parliamentary public hearing covering the Mineral and Energy Resources and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2020:

    There was plenty of discussion about its impact on reporting and safety culture but not one single question covering the widespread practice of linking substantial performance bonuses to extraordinary production or safety targets such as zero harm or zero serious harm, which generates a mercenary culture.

  4. The presentation from the Mine Managers Association was quite astonishing and completely disregarded the findings of the Black Lung White Lies report.

    Despite the 130+ confirmed cases of mine dust lung diseases and the recent spate of fatalities I am against the introduction of industrial manslaughter but in this particular instance birth control or sterilisation would be a more condign option.

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