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Don’t Shock the Rat

I read an interesting article recently at, questioning the effectiveness of VPP. To say that it was controversial is an understatement.

The article maintains that companies are only joining VPPPA as a way to get off OSHA’s radar screen, to escape OSHA compliance visits and audits.

The writer concludes that the answer is bigger penalties and fines for companies who violate safety rules and questions whether VPP is effective at improving safety performance.  Perhaps the old saying to “walk softly and carry a big stick” should be applied to create a tougher, meaner OSHA.

What do you think?

I decided to “Ask the Experts” how they feel about VPP.  So I reached out to a few of the safety professionals I’ve come to know and respect over the last 30 years, and some of them were kind enough to give me their input on the question of VPP and its effectiveness as a tool to enhance worker safety.  Before I share that, I’d like to tell you a few stories to help put this issue in perspective.

As a lifelong student of human behavior, I learned early on that there are primarily two levers we can pull to change someone’s behavior:

 Pleasure & Pain

We are either motivated to do what we do because we are running towards a pleasant outcome—or because we are running away from a painful one.

There are still a few die-hard managers who believe that pain, punishment, and fear are the best ways to change people’s behavior. They are wrong.

No matter how big the Grizzly Bear is that is chasing you, one day you will get tired of running. You will stop. And you will give that Grizzly the fight of his life, even if it means the end of yours. The Grizzly bear may “win” the fight, but he’ll lose the battle. You aren’t running anymore. Your performance has dropped to zero.

If you are running toward pleasure, however, you will run faster and longer. I’ll tell you a little story about shocking rats to prove my point in a little bit.

Before I do, let’s debunk one of the primary tenets from the story about OSHA and VPP.  They maintain that the main reason companies join VPPPA is to escape fines and inspections by OSHA.

This is ludicrous.

If you aren’t a member of VPPPA, your odds of having a visit from your friendly OSHA inspector are about 1 in 100,000.  Those are long odds. In fact, according to google, your chances of hitting a hole in one in golf are way, way better than getting a visit from OSHA.

My point is that the potential of an OSHA audit is future and uncertain with very low probability.  We know from behavioral science that future and uncertain consequences do not really motivate behavior change.

Bottom line: The threat of an OSHA inspection doesn’t change company behavior until an inspection has occurred and fines have resulted. Now, the threat becomes very certain, and moves closer to being “immediate”.

Suppose your company joins VPPPA….does that mean you are off the OSHA radar screen?

Guess what…now your chances of being inspected by someone from OSHA change from uncertain and future to GUARANTEED. You are assured to get a visit from OSHA. That is CERTAIN, and pretty close to immediate.

So, the notion that companies join VPPPA to escape OSHA visits just doesn’t hold up to reality.

Punishment or Praise?

Science has proven that both positive and punishing consequences produce behavior change.

The fundamental question in this debate seems to be, “what works best?” Should OSHA increase penalties and fines and step up the punishment (e.g. should the Grizzly Bear growl louder and take bigger bites?)

Or, should OSHA continue to use VPP to partner with companies, and will that produce the result we all want?—“Nobody gets hurt.”

If a reward for working a period of time without an injury can cause injury hiding, then being punished for having injuries can also lead to injury hiding.

Incentive programs, you see, have become a convenient scapegoat (hey…this sounds like another blog I’ve read J) —a consultants “trashcan diagnosis” for why injury hiding occurs.   Incentives have also provided many behavioral consultants with something to bash in their presentations at various conferences.

The problem with an OSHA that only knows how to crack down and punish companies is that this will produce many companies who only do the minimum to comply with OSHA rules, and who invest all their resources in avoiding the next OSHA Zap. 

The Power of Positive reinforcement lies in its unique ability to inspire “above and beyond” performance…in effect performance moves off the charts.  It is the only way to get people to “want ” to do something.

Shocking Rats

VPP is one of OSHA’s strategies to deploy positive reinforcement with business leaders.  While this positive approach has tremendous potential, it is not a perfect science. There is always some “trial and error” in performance improvement. Just ask the Wright Brothers. J

Since you’ve been waiting patiently, I’d now like to tell you a story about shocking rats.

In his book The Sin of Wages, Bill Abernathy relates a time when he was asked to teach prison guards the value of positive reinforcement in changing inmate behavior.

He brought in two white rats, and each rat was placed in an identical chamber. The first rat was trained to press a button in order to receive a food pellet. It took Abernathy many tries until after 30 minutes or so, the rat would consistently press the button to earn its food.  R+ had worked again! (R+ is Aubrey Daniel’s shorthand for Positive Reinforcement).

The next rat wasn’t so fortunate. This one was picked to test negative reinforcement as a behavior change tool. So, instead of getting food, this rat got shocked. A small electrical jolt was sent thru the floor of the chamber. The rat was so startled by the pain that it accidentally hit the lever on the very first try, which turned off the electricity. In less than 5 minutes, the rat had learned how to press the lever to stop from being shocked.

Abernathy thought his experiment was a failure.

The prison guards laughed at him. “That proves what we’ve always said! Punishment works better than the positive approach…… It took you 30 minutes and a whole lot of food to get the first rat to do what you wanted. But negative reinforcement got the same results in less than 5 minutes—and you didn’t have to spend any money on food!”  (Guess it was time for the guards to go watch their favorite movie, Cool Hand Luke).

Abernathy knew it was now or never if he was going to make his point. He asked one of the guards to take the first rat (the one who had received positive reinforcement) out of the chamber. The rat was friendly and happily crawled around on the guard’s hand, affectionately warming up to him.

But the second rat was different. You see, it had been shocked again and again for several hours.  When the guard opened the door it attacked him, biting his fingers and bringing blood, and refusing to let go.

The moral of the story?

Don’t shock the rat.

You may get some un-expected behaviors you’d rather not deal with if you use compliance penalties & punishment exclusively in an attempt to change behavior.

If you are serious about getting higher levels of performance, then behavioral science suggests you should continue Positive reinforcement processes like Sharps and VPPPA. They offer you a very different approach to improve performance, and they will get you better performance  than punishment alone.

Set high quality standards and coach the participants to meet them. Consider letting VPPP sites compete with themselves to get better. Focus on the quality of VPPPA participants.  But by all means, keep R+ in the system.

6 Responses to “Don’t Shock the Rat”

  1. January 24th, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    David Fender says:

    Has anyone noticed what has happened at MSHA since fines have been increased and they have become “less friendly?” Citations are now routinely contested and the backlog of contested citations has grown enormously. So is MSHA really being more effective or are they spending more time on administrative matters instead of safety?

  2. January 24th, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    Theresa Douglas says:

    As a former EHS Coordinator of a VPP Star Site, I totally agree with this article. Participating in the VPP Program is a lot of work. It requires annual reporting and continuous improvement. The single largest report that was due each year (including those required by EPA) was our Annual VPP Review. It required us to look closely at all our programs and determine where improvement was needed. Then a Corrective Action Plan was required, and we worked on that all year until our next reporting cycle. It is a lot of work, but very well worth the effort. Becoming a VPP Star Site did more for employee moral and pride than anything else we tried, not to mention improving the safety of our biggest asset, our people!

  3. January 25th, 2012 at 3:03 am

    obima oragwu says:

    I like this. I support R+ but will keep the alternative consequences in view as disincentive.

  4. January 25th, 2012 at 8:33 am

    Jon Jimenez says:

    What a concept, let’s apply the logic that has failed in the drug wars for 30 years (big stick mentality) and apply it to a federal burocracy. If OSHA acts like an enemy it will be perceived as one.

  5. January 25th, 2012 at 11:20 am

    L Bennett says:

    For the benefit of overseas readers what is VPP and VPPPA?

  6. January 25th, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    D. Stanley says:


    I have just finished reading your blog which I enjoyed. There is an interesting corollary to the rat story.

    If you stop shocking the rats, they stop working the lever but if you stop the rewards, they keep on pressing the lever-often frantically.
    The reward can become arbitrary and random with no relationship to the action of the rat. The behaviour becomes almost like a superstition

    There are several examples of this behaviour.
    Sports fans watching their team standing up behind the sofa because the team scored when they did that once and of course as they now always watch standing up, it continues to work.
    You may know about the Borneo tribesmen’s cargo cult. They make crude models of radios and headphones and pray into them because when the missionaries did the same thing, presents fell from the sky on parachutes.

    It is also very similar to the classic Pavlovian response.

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