Safety incentives as traditionally deployed (prizes rewarded for no reports of injuries) often do more harm than good. To win rewards, employees might hide injuries and not report them. You’re left with an inaccurate picture of your true safety performance.

I believe rewards should be linked to safe behavior instead of lagging indicator results — your injury rate, which may be based on under-reporting. You really don’t know. Instead, incentives should be used as part of a system to increase positive reinforcement. To measurably engage and coach employees. For having safety conversations every day. Focus on the positive aspects of your safety program.


Clarifying what works

The sage of safety, Dan Petersen, puts it this way: “It has been known for many years that positive reinforcement immediately following a desired behavior is the strongest way to build and maintain safe behavior. Each day ensure that you schedule yourself some time to observe each person who works for you at least once. It is easier to improve performance by praise of the job well done than it is by criticism. Individuals react positively to compliments and want to continue to receive them.”

I couldn’t agree more. We need positive reinforcement. We cherish feedback confirming our contributions matter. Positive reinforcement is a power method to improve human performance.

Classic, old school safety incentives differ in a variety of ways, with a variety of goals. Ten different safety directors will deploy ten different incentive strategies. This leads to confusion about what works, and often a rush to another flavor of the month game or contest.

Let’s set the record straight about what works and what doesn’t work. Without clarity, safety leaders will go off in different directions with questionable results.

The largest corporate users of incentives believe that gifts with a company logo are only effective 11 percent of the time in changing a person’s behavior, while cash, gift cards, and gifts score much better.

Darryl Oscars learned this lesson the back in the early 2000s. He also discovered the pitfalls of lagging indicator safety incentives. Darryl tried several approaches, from scratch-off cards to jackets with a company logo. “But we saw zero impact on our injury performance,” he says.

Darryl’s experience brings up a common problem with old-school lagging safety incentives:

When you tie an award to working injury-free you get only one real change in behavior — what gets reported.  People are still engaging in at risk behavior — they just aren’t reporting it. And if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

If you tie the award to the injury rate (TRIR, LTIR, etc.) and you reward people for being “safe” for a week, a month, a quarter, or a year, you are simply reinforcing the behavior of not reporting events. Incidence rates are really failure rate that tell you nothing about what you’re doing right in safety. You need leading indicators, not lagging, to improve safety performance.

Here’s what we’ve established so far: lagging indicator incentives produce only one real behavior change — what gets reported.


So what’s the solution? 

Switch to a leading approach. Properly designed leading indicator positive reinforcement systems produce measurable change in culture and behavior, along with significant reductions in injuries (without injury hiding.)

In the ASSP Professional Safety Journal, July 2004, Paul Goodrum studied several hundred construction firms. They were split into two groups: a) those companies who did not use incentive systems and b) those with a system designed to positively reinforce safe behaviors. Companies using positive reinforcement showed a 44 percent decline in injuries. Companies without a system showed a slight increase in injuries.

In the same journal, research has shown that engaged employees are significantly safer than dis-engaged workers.


What about OSHA?

Adding to the confusion, in recent years, OSHA has wavered in its position regarding safety incentive programs. In 2016, the agency issued a strong warning: “Employers must not use incentive programs in a way that penalizes workers for reporting work-related injuries or illnesses.” OSHA provided an example of a cash prize raffle for each month without a lost-time incident. If the employer cancels the raffle in a particular month simply because an employee reported a lost-time injury without regard to the circumstances of the injury, OSHA said such a cancellation would likely be a violation of section 1904.35, a new final rule, “Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses.”

OSHA recommended programs that reward for employee participation in safety program activities and evaluations, completion of employee training, and safety walkthroughs and identification of hazards. All leading indicators.

It was widely assumed in the safety community that OSHA had effectively banned the use of rate-based, lagging indicator safety incentives. 2016 was the final year of the Obama administration and the aggressive campaign by OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels to put a stop to what he considered widespread under-reporting, or hiding, or injuries due to safety incentives based on injury rates.

In 2018, under the Trump administration, OSHA changed its position. Under certain situations, a “rate-based” program might be OK. Or it might not.

Smart safety professionals don’t design their incentive strategy with only OSHA compliance in mind. They base their strategy on what works.  Does the strategy produce safer behavior from workers and leaders?

Darryl Oscars discovered how to leave lagging incentive systems behind and switch to leading indicators.

Using a consultant, Darryl designed a positive reinforcement system that drove measurable change in critical safe behaviors. His injuries decreased dramatically.

“We use a system that creates positive conversations and interactions about safety. If a supervisor or an employee observes someone working safely, he or she immediately goes up to that person to reinforce their safe behavior,” he says.

Often, you don’t need a gift at all. Did you know 75 percent of employees say they never hear the words “thank you” from their boss? We all want to be appreciated. In fact, the number one driver of employee engagement is positive reinforcement. Cash rewards clock in as number eight, or even lower, in studies of the effectiveness of different incentive plans. (Don’t get me wrong, a Yeti cooler is always welcome, at least here in the South!)


Positive reinforcement is the way to go

When Darryl’s supervisors see a worker performing safely, they deliver positive feedback on the spot.  They engage in a constructive, positive conversation. And quite often those positive conversations are carried to worker’s family.

Darryl recalls one company picnic where a little girl asked her daddy to take her to meet Darryl. Smiling, the little girl asked Darryl, “Mr. Oscars, what does my daddy need to do so I can win that iPod?”

As Darryl says, “It’s not a gotcha program. And every time that worker uses their Yeti or their iPod, they are thinking positive thoughts about their supervisor and this company.” His process works. He documented more than a million dollars in injury reductions the first year.

There are other successes:

  • Ken Arms of Advance Disposal reported a 44 percent decrease in unsafe driving behaviors — following too close; cell phone use; unbelted safety belts; not looking ahead; no stopping for STOP signs and red lights — in just three months’ time using positive reinforcement.
  • NutraSweet’s participation rate in a behavior-based safety program increased from less than five percent to 96 percent by adding the positive reinforcement component.
  • DuPont’s Kinston, North Carolina, textile plant with 3,500 employees reduced all lost-time injuries to zero for almost three years after implementing a positive reinforcement system to complement other safety practices.

What’s the common denominator in these success stories? You guessed it. Positive reinforcement.

Reinforce safe behaviors. Don’t play the “blame the worker” game. Sure, you give corrective feedback for at-risk behavior. But take every opportunity to telling a person what they did right; not what they did wrong. That’s the “gotcha” game.

In his book, Bringing out the Best in People, Dr. Aubrey Daniels offers these pointers on the effective use of positive reinforcement:

  • Positive reinforcement is a consequence that follows a behavior and increases the frequency of that behavior, even when the consequence is removed.
  • It should be delivered as soon as possible.
  • One act of positive reinforcement does not make a habit. Hundreds of occasions of positive reinforcement may be necessary to achieve habit strength.
  • Cash as an incentive is soon spent and the memory of it soon fades. Tangible reinforcers (if chosen wisely) are kept longer and remembered longer

As you ponder your organization’s positive reinforcement strategy, here are some takeaway questions for you:

  1. Does your program measure both safe and unsafe behavior, as well as measuring positive reinforcement in your culture?
  2. Does your program reinforce safe behavior immediately?
  3. Can you measure change in culture, leader and worker behavior in real time?
  4. Does your program cause under-reporting of injuries?
  5. Can you demonstrate your program works?

I’ve shown you the answers in this article, and hopefully cleared up some confusion about incentives. It’s time to set the record straight on the best way to deploy safety incentives. To learn more about successful safety incentive programs visit