Safety Incentives

February 20, 2007
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How do you motivate workers to follow company policy, whether it is for safety and health, or just simply to attend the company holiday party? It seems like there should be an easy solution to this vexing problem — just dangle a carrot or two and watch them get in line. But for some reason, incentive plans often don’t work as well as we think they should; and oftentimes they fail miserably.

Why is this? Why don’t many workers respond to incentives, and others only respond in the short term? Let’s discuss incentive plans and examine some guidelines on how to select the right awards to successfully motivate your workforce to work safely. The effectiveness of incentives depends on five factors, which can be remembered easily using the acronym TRAIT:
Type of work
Recipient pool
Allocation of awards
Incentive choice
Threshold of difficulty

Type of work

The success of an incentive program depends on the type of work being done and the performance measures that you are trying to promote. Tangible benefits such as monetary awards and prizes seem to work best for improving rote behaviors. If you are trying to get workers to follow specific safety procedures such as using their personal protective equipment, then I recommend these kinds of awards.

On the other hand, implicit incentives such as peer recognition seem to work better for knowledge-based behaviors. But don’t try to mix and match. Studies have shown that if you give workers both kinds of incentives, the tangible awards interfere with the implicit ones and you get more of the rote behaviors at the expense of thinking.

Recipient pool

Program success is significantly impacted by the recipient(s): Are you giving the award to an individual, a team or an entire facility? There are challenges to overcome with each choice.

When you use individual incentives, workers may be motivated to act selfishly and hurt overall performance by refusing to help their coworkers if it could reduce their own chance of receiving an award. When you use team incentives, workers complain that their peers are not contributing or feel peer pressure to hide injuries. When you use aggregate statistics, no one feels that their own behavior will have much effect on the likelihood of receiving an award, so they do not become motivated by the program.

Allocation of awards

The allocation of awards is more than just a budgetary consideration. I strongly recommend giving small awards to lots of employees rather than large awards to just a few. Workers often value “winning” and the peer recognition that comes with it as much as (if not more than) the award itself. This is why pats on the back, announcements in the company newsletter, and other incentives with zero monetary value can still work. By spreading the awards among many workers, you can maximize the number of workers who become motivated. And total costs are low because you can use simple, inexpensive awards.

Incentive choice

The selection of the awards themselves is obviously an important part of any incentive program. There have been many studies that investigated the effectiveness of different kinds of awards. For example, paycheck bonuses are often interpreted as part of the worker’s remuneration rather than an award. So not only do they fail to motivate the award winner, but he/she expects the same amount in their next paycheck!

Another issue to consider is that awards which serve basic needs (such as money and food) generally prevent workers from being de-motivated, but do not motivate them above their neutral level. On the other hand, awards that are truly seen as unique are not motivating to workers who are dissatisfied with their jobs, but are effective with satisfied workers. So, at companies where morale is good, use unique awards; but where morale is bad, you may be better off using cash awards

Threshold of difficulty

Finally, program success is also impacted by how hard it is to achieve an award level. If it is too easy to earn an award, workers become habituated to receiving it. It becomes part of the routine and they only notice when they don’t earn it and become de-motivated. If the award is too hard to earn, there is very little incentive to even try. Workers develop “learned helplessness” pretty quickly and will ignore the program completely or even work against it.

Enhance your program

Using the TRAIT approach to designing an incentive program and selecting awards can put you on the path to creating a successful incentive program. But there are a few more things you can do to enhance your incentive program.

  1. Find the coachable moments. When workers fail to earn awards, use it as an opportunity to provide coaching/mentoring in safety. Point out the reasons that the absent behaviors are important, not because of the awards but because of the worker’s well-being.

  2. Make it easy for workers to trade awards that are comparable. If you have several workers earning awards such as gift cards or small prizes, there is a good chance that each one will prefer an award given to someone else. This “grass is greener” problem can reduce the effectiveness of the program. Making it easy to trade awards can reduce this challenge as well as create a fun activity for award winners.

  3. Make sure that the program is transparent. If there is any uncertainty among workers in what leads to awards or the fairness of the evaluation process, it can destroy any benefits of an otherwise well-designed program.
Incentive programs can be a powerful tool to improve workers’ behavior towards health and safety requirements. But they are not as easy to set up as one might think. There are many snags that can rip up the fabric of an incentive program, perhaps even leading to less safe behavior. Luckily, the safety profession is full of experience that can help you create an effective program. Remembering the TRAIT approach should provide you with some guidance.

SIDEBAR: Who do you reward?

Incentive recipient: Individual
Potential drawback: Worker may act selfishly and hurt overall performance.

Incentive recipient: Team
Potential drawback: Some may feel peers are not contributing; worker may feel pressure to hide injuries.

Incentive recipient: Entire facility
Potential drawback: Individual may feel own behavior will have little effect on receiving award.

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