How and When to Use Safety Incentives and Rewards
The research on the effectiveness of safety campaigns and initiatives shows a limited impact in many cases.
Instead, creating a coordinated communications strategy to announce a new program or approach is useful for capturing the workforce’s attention and build interest.
Additionally, if the initiative changes an established way of doing something or seems to affect a real or perceived employee benefit, it’s imperative to carefully plan the roll-out. For a change that might be controversial, you should include all stakeholders in the planning phase. Employee concerns and feedback gathered and dealt with before the rollout. If your program doesn’t take employee feedback on board, the initiative is probably doomed to failure. Some other rules of thumb are below:
- Define a specific problem or issue for the effort to address. Don’t launch a safety campaign just because you think the safety department needs attention.
- Always get approval from senior management and written agreement on goals, methods, budget, and duration of the safety initiative before proceeding.
- Always involve Union stewards (if applicable), supervisors, and workgroup leaders to design, plan, and implement safety campaigns.
- Minimize the number of safety campaigns/initiatives per year — the fewer, the better!
- Define the goals and key success metrics for each campaign/initiative to gauge its effectiveness.
- End campaigns or initiatives when you meet the goal or if the campaign proves ineffective. In other words, don’t keep beating a dead horse.
Properly designed and implemented safety campaigns that address real issues that employees accept and buy-in are great tools for communicating needed process changes to employees. However, safety campaigns don’t take the place of regular two-way communication of safe work practices, hazard reporting, or collaborative problem-solving. These practices are the keys to building and maintaining effective safety programs over the long term.
The goal of most safety incentive programs is to promote safe work behaviors by offering a tangible reward for employees who deliver the desired outcome. The idea that workers modify their behavior in desirable ways to receive positive reinforcement or a reward seems to be common sense. Additionally, “Operant Conditioning” has been studied and written about by scholars of human behavior like Edward Thorndike, John Watson, and B. F. Skinner for decades.
Unfortunately, although the science underlying the work is well-founded, incentive programs’ effects on worker safety have not been directly established. Before implementing an organization’s incentive and reward program, management should ask what the real goal is.
Too often, incentive programs are a reaction to poor safety performance, as indicated by unacceptably high injury and incident rates. Other times, incentive programs exist to address employee dissatisfaction and inadequate corporate or safety culture.
Incentive programs are not standalone tools for improving company culture, employee/management relations, or driving incident and injury reduction. Rather, incentives may be a useful part of a broader strategy to engage workers in the safety program or highlight a specific program or procedure change.
OSHA does not require employers to offer safety incentive programs as part of their safety program management system. It warns against programs that offer high-value incentives that might deter reporting, so workers don’t lose a prize. Avoid programs that reward employees for avoiding injuries or achieving a certain number of “injury-free days’. These programs lead to peer pressure because they are group-based. If one person is injured, everybody loses the reward. Instead, design your incentive program to reward specific behaviors that are easily observable and deemed beneficial to working safely or complying with safe work procedures.
Below are nine tips for designing an effective safety incentive program:
- The behaviors required to receive an award are well-defined and achievable.
- Everyone who meets the behavioral standard should receive a reward.
- It would be best to avoid penalizing groups for failure by an individual unless they can control the individual’s performance.
- It’s better for many people to get small rewards than for one person to get a large reward.
- Do not reward one group at the expense of another.
- Progress towards awards should be monitored and publicly posted.
- The rewards should be displayable and represent safety achievement.
- Reward programs should have defined time limits and be started, stopped, and changed frequently.
- After concluding a safety incentive program, perform a review (“hotwash” or after-action session) to determine if it met the stated objectives and what lessons will inform future efforts.
If designed and implemented thoughtfully, safety incentive and reward programs can be a useful part of the management-employee safety communication process and promote a positive atmosphere towards safety in the organization. Beware of “off the rack” or commercial incentive programs that claim fantastic results at other companies. Instead, evaluate them based on the guidance above and your specific objectives for the incentive program before buying.
Back to Table of Contents