It shouldn’t be necessary to motivate people to work safely. Logically, it’s in everyone’s best interests to work as safely as possible to ensure that all go home at the end of the day without incident. In practice, however, human nature can get in the way. Employees want to take shortcuts, they become absent-minded, or they don’t see an issue with doing something different “just this once.”

Human nature is what makes it necessary for companies to institute safety protocols, and it’s the reason why they need to reinforce those protocols through a safety incentive program that encourages employees to work safely and reward them when they do. Even as workplace injuries have declined significantly over the last few decades, designing and creating a safety incentive program to promote and reward safe work behavior should remain a top priority for most companies.

Building the process

Although it might seem easy to create a safety incentive program, companies need to put some thought into them to ensure that they will work. It isn’t enough to hang a plaque honoring an employee with the best safety record each month, or keep a running count of incident-free days. A safety incentive program should be tailored to the company’s processes, relevant to its employees’ responsibilities, and designed with a focus on concrete, measurable goals that concentrate on the process — not the result.

When building a safety incentive program, the first thing safety professionals need to keep in mind is that the incentives must be tied to behavior for which employees have personal responsibility, not the end result. Rewarding accident-free results without recognizing the underlying behavior that led to the employee’s safety record means you’re just as likely to reward an employee for being lucky as much as for being safe.

Tying the incentives to behaviors such as wearing safety equipment properly, attending safety meetings and immediately reporting unsafe conditions is far more likely to reinforce the company’s safety protocols and encourage employees to work with safety in mind. What’s more, safety professionals should concentrate on incentivizing behavior that is linked directly to a reduced risk of accidents. Research also has shown that incentives linked to individuals’ behavior rather than team performance as a whole, are much more effective at encouraging safe workplace behavior.

Ensuring buy-in at all levels

While it is extremely important for safety professionals to get a buy-in from all employees for a safety incentive program to be effective, it is also crucial that they receive the complete support of management. If management is unaware of or uninterested in the safety incentive program, it sends a counterproductive message down the line and creates the impression that the company is simply going through the motions for compliance with some type of regulation. By gaining involvement of the company’s upper management from the beginning of the safety incentive program, safety professionals can make it clear that the company’s culture values safe behavior, making it easier to encourage safe behavior among employees.

Establishing solid goals and incentives

Establishing an effective safety incentive program also means structuring the goals and incentives to be as effective as possible to encourage and reward safe behavior in the workplace, as well as ensuring that performance can be measured easily. Too often, a safety incentive program fails because safety professionals did not develop a fully defined administrative process for the program. When there is confusion among employees about how the incentives are administered, there is likely to be less buy-in, and therefore the program is likely to wither and die. Goals, rewards and the processes used to evaluate and deliver them must be well established before the program is implemented.

Furthermore, goals need to be rooted in specific, measureable behaviors. The feeling that goals are vague or subject to interpretation is another common reason why safety incentive programs are prone to failure. When all employees can see clearly how goals are met and what they need to do personally to help achieve those goals, there is a much greater chance that a safety incentive program will succeed.

Safety professionals recommend that goals be created based on the acronym S.M.A.R.T.:

  • Specific
  • Measureable
  • Action-oriented
  • Realistic
  • Time-based

Once the goals and the basic framework of the incentive program are established, all that’s left is for companies to determine the types of rewards they will give to employees for their safe workplace behavior. Rewards can be physical, such as gift cards or trophies, or they can be more ephemeral such as days off or special lunches. A safety incentive program is built with clear goals and geared toward promoting personal responsibility to make employees more effective at encouraging each other to engage in safe behavior.

It’s human nature to expect to a reward for doing the right thing. Employers can use that to create the safest workplace possible.