The search for successful incentives

February 1, 2008
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“Thank you for doing a good job,” is one of the best incentives.


The subject of safety incentive programs has been a debatable — and even divisive — issue among safety pros. There are opinions supporting and opposing the use of safety incentives and many stories of both success and failure. Even OSHA has joined the fray. So should you use safety incentives? Do they work? Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons.

Pro side
Incentives are a visible means of rewarding and recognizing workers. Incentives have been used for years, even in raising our children. Corporations, including airlines, credit card companies and more, use incentives to promote sales. Incentives provide a tangible message that is recognized by others, and thus can encourage others to strive to win.

Incentives can add fun to a safety process. Safety is often regarded in a negative light. Incentive rewards are regarded as a positive method to get results. It is commonly accepted that positive reinforcement drives positive behavior. People do more of what results in feeling good. Most tangible rewards initially feel pretty good. An incentive program will often incite excitement and enthusiasm initially.

In some states, implementing an incentive plan is rewarded through credit in their workers’ compensation plans.

Con side
OSHA recently challenged the use of incentives, intimating that they encourage under-reporting of injuries and incidents. When large prizes and/or money are involved, few want to lose out on receiving rewards. This can lead to hiding incidents to meet the criteria of receiving a bonus or large prize.

While incentive programs often provide “whiteboard enthusiasm” upfront, once implemented, people tend to lose interest over time. Research indicates that as time passes the effect of incentives on behavior diminishes.

A good deal of administrative effort is required to implement such a program. Tracking, ordering and distribution can become cumbersome. Programs can also become costly. In times of budgetary constraints, incentive programs are often eliminated. This can cause consternation among employees. Once you give workers something, it is hard to take it away without consequences.

Often, companies keep trying to find the magic program. This can eventually evolve into a situation where every initiative introduced is regarded as “same ole stuff” leading to distrust, apathy and lack of willingness to participate.

Timing is everything
Who is right, the pros or the cons? Quite simply…both! “When” and “how” are what’s important for a company that chooses to utilize incentives. Most everyone agrees that good safety performance should be recognized and rewarded.

OSHA’s primary objection to incentives is when they are used to reward. Often programs are geared towards reactive situations. These programs focus on end-results such as recordables and lost-time records. Rewards are based on a lack of bad results, for instance a lack of accidents or low number of accidents — all lagging indicators. Results are numbers; they do not tell you how or why you achieved them.

Giving tangible rewards for a good safety record is not necessarily a bad practice, as long as you know how you achieved the good results. Spontaneous celebrations are good. In most client facilities where the company surprises employees with a reward, the effect is strong and meaningful. This also steers away from the “dangling carrot” and burying injuries to gain a reward.

Small gifts awarded for specific behaviors/practices (defined by the entire facility population) also can be effective. A company that uses proactive rewarding generally wins. Near-miss reporting and total involvement in defining safe practices provide many opportunities for rewarding and recognizing individuals as well as employees as a whole.

In an effective near-hit process, incidents are communicated plant-wide and solutions/suggestions are asked for and acted on. When it is apparent that causes for near hits are corrected (especially reoccurring incidents) having a celebration can reinforce the trend.

Safe practices identified and tracked through daily observations supply data that provide many opportunities for recognition and rewards. In one client facility, it became evident through observation results that poor housekeeping was leading to tripping and slipping incidents. Everyone was encouraged by the lead team (mostly primary employees) and management to eliminate the problem. As data improved, employees were continually thanked and congratulated. When scores improved significantly, employees were surprised with shirts that read, “This is a clean plant and I helped!” This plant continues to have a clean house, which in turn has improved productivity. However, the entire process of tracking and immediate reinforcement — not just the shirt — accomplished this.

Implementing incentives
Before utilizing any incentive program, make sure “your ducks are in a row.” In other words, have a solid safety process in place before venturing into this type of program. Incentive programs in themselves will not be effective. They are meant to complement, not be the safety process.

Total involvement is another important element in the success of incentives programs. Initially, perform a survey (anonymous) with the entire facility population. Targeted questions help determine what type of rewards would be most accepted and appreciated, both tangible and intangible recognition.

In our cultural behavioral safety process, a lead team is responsible for monitoring the process and acting as a resource to all employees. Sub-teams help in specific areas of assignments. One of those sub-teams is dedicated to organizing and implementing reward activity. They help set specific objectives for rewards and develop these objectives based on specific practices defined by all. This step must be continually communicated to the workforce. This sub-team ensures that the general population will like a reward and coordinates the efforts.

Management needs to provide a budget to the team, so they have a guideline with which to operate. Individual big dollar prizes awarded through contests/drawings can be detrimental to a process. Only one person wins and this does little to promote total involvement.

The best incentive
Recognition of specific safe behaviors/practices on a daily basis using positive reinforcement — “Thank you for doing a good job!” — is the true path to success. Tangibles should never replace this practice. Employees are a company’s most valuable asset. Involving workers in the safety process, giving them ownership, encouraging them to share their knowledge and daily experiences on the job and allowing them to make recommendations are sure ways to realize excellent results. This in itself is an incentive.

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