As a safety professional I want to use every option available to reduce injuries. Incentive programs are one of those options. I have to admit that I, like many others, have struggled for many years with the question of the value of incentive programs.

Early in my career, long before I got into the safety field, I was working for a chemical company. One day I came home with a new igloo cooler. My wife asked where I got it and I replied, “Something at work, I think it is for safety.” I was getting safety-related gift items so often that I didn’t have the slightest idea what they were for or why I received them. I can surely say that they had absolutely no effect on my behaviors on the job.

If your company is also doling out gifts as part of a quality program, then along with safety incentives the gift-giving can really get crazy. One year I received five jackets from my employer. With 800 employees, you can imagine the kind of money they were spending.

Call it incentives and recognition gone wild.

Ask any sane person what it is worth in dollars not to have their arm broken and they will say you can’t pay them enough. If that is true then why do we think a person will work more safely because they might get $100 at the end of the month?

The answer to that question is in the type of incentive program used.

Incentive or recognition?

A program that gives out prizes or gifts that relate to safety performance are either incentive programs or recognition programs. Regardless of which category they fall under, what matters is if they are adding value to the safety program.

When we think of safety incentives we often mix them with safety recognition efforts.

Definition: Incentive — something that encourages somebody to action; something that encourages or motivates somebody to do something.

Look at your incentive program. Is it encouraging and or motivating employees to work more safely?

A typical incentive program sets goals such as days or hours without a certain level of injury. It then designates the level of prizes if these goals are met.

Remember that these goals are not limited to incident rates. The goals can be things such as safety meeting attendance or job hazard analysis performed.

Definition: Recognition — token of acknowledgment; something given or awarded as a token of acknowledgment or gratitude.

Reinforcing safety when an individual or group hits a milestone can be a valuable program.

Is it time yet?

Don’t consider an incentive or recognition program until you have a basic safety program in place. Incentive and recognition programs can enhance a good safety program, but on the other hand they can hinder a safety program that is just starting out.

If you have your basic programs in place such as hazard communication, personal protective equipment, job hazard analysis, lockout/tagout, confined space and safety meetings, you might be a candidate for incentives.

If you implement an incentive program, be sure to do it thoroughly. Incentive programs need as much time and attention as other safety programs. Make sure that your incentive program fits the goals and objectives of your company.

Is the goal of the incentive program to reduce injuries? If so, how will this be accomplished and measured?

Get employees involved in the development and implementation of the program. This is a good safety committee role.

Put safeguards in place that will deter employees from under-reporting.

One of the tools

As you review your safety toolbox, one of those tools should be incentives and recognition. A program that fits your company’s particular needs can be an asset to incident reduction.

Design an easily managed program that meets your goals. Have incentives and recognition work for you.

SIDEBAR: Pros and cons of safety incentives

The pros:

  • Incentives increase safety awareness.
  • Safety becomes more interesting.
  • Employees value recognition; it shows that management is paying attention.
  • Incentives can also produce positive results if you incorporate them into a program that requires some type of safety activity to make the person or group eligible for the prize, such as doing safety observations or near-miss reports.
  • Incentives are a good public relations tool for the safety department or safety committee.

The cons:

  • Incentives may influence people to hide injuries in order to get the prize.
  • The prizes have to get better as time goes along.
  • The person who ruins the safety record may get ostracized by co-workers for “blowing it.”
  • Administering the incentive program requires a lot of time from safety department personnel.