A few years ago, I started researching safety incentive programs, collecting articles from safety journals, periodicals, newsletters, and many other sources. I quickly noticed that lots of articles have been written about incentives, with lots of opinions on how to get the most out of incentive programs.

No matter what kind of program you come up with, the one sure bet is that someone will disagree with it. So keep your eye on the objective: you want an incentive program that meets the goals for your organization. All the acronyms, slogans, gimmicks, give-a-ways, and hype in the world can’t make a program successful if it’s not right for your organization. A program can be immensely successful in one company and a total flop in another.

Key question

Before you go searching out all the varieties of safety incentive programs, stop and ask yourself this very important question: What are you trying to accomplish?

This simple first step is often overlooked, and the lack of a clear answer has sent many a program into trouble from the start. Some likely reasons for setting up a safety incentive program include:

  • To reduce OSHA recordables and/or lost-time incidents;
  • To increase employee participation;

  • To continuously improve some area of your safety program;

  • To build employee morale; and

  • To build a sense of fun, awareness, and team spirit.

Before we go any further, let’s make one point clear: A safety incentive program is just one tool in your whole safety system. Incentives alone can’t achieve your safety goals.

I’d like to make two more general points. Remember, whatever is important to your CEO will become important to everyone. Your safety goals must tie in to your organization’s broader goals. And no matter what goals you choose to zero in on, incentives should provide consistent and frequent recognition and motivation for doing better than before. Constant improvement should be your battle cry.

Do's and don'ts

Here are ten tips for setting up a successful incentive program:

1. Don’t set a certain number of injuries, illnesses, or incidents as the sole criteria for winning awards. It’s best not to rely on recordkeeping statistics at all.

This can easily drive reporting underground and actually work against improving your safety performance.

2. Avoid using the same program for long periods of time. Programs tend to get dry and stale and lose their motivating punch. Pay attention to your program’s momentum. Thirty days isn’t long enough to get it going — and after a year it might have run its course.

3. Don’t stop your program because you had one bad performance period.

4. Be careful that you don’t set up employees for failure. This can happen if the program requires zero incidents.

5. Don’t have different levels of awards for different groups, such as one for supervisors, and another for hourly employees.

6. Don’t skew reporting to try and save a “safe streak.” This must be combated with a strong reporting and investigation program. If not, the “walking wounded” will drive morale into the dirt.

7. Focus on rewarding desired behaviors and activities.

8. Behaviors and activities that get rewarded should be based on what your entire workforce does — from top management to line employees. Don’t let incentives be seen as a blame-the-worker program. Getting management involved will motivate everyone.

9. Focus on goals that involve all your all employees. The more involved employees become, the greater chance you have of improving safety performance.

10. Everyone must have an equal chance to win. Don’t create one winner and 300 losers. This is an easy way to lose participation.

What works best?

There are pros and cons to every possible type of incentive award you can think of. Many vendors allow you to pick gifts from their catalogs. The easiest alternative is to add a little money to the paycheck. It’s really a matter of deciding what works best for your organization.

I personally think awards should be memorable. Our company has had great success in continually increasing the level of safety participation by using Wal-Mart gift cards. Somehow, the gift card is “special” and is typically spent on something the employee wouldn’t ordinarily purchase. Our program strikes the balance between being easy to administer and giving employees something they really enjoy.

Whatever option you go with, remember to consider the tax consequences. IRS laws are very specific in this area. Your accounting department should be involved in any program you set up.

Sidebar: Keys to successful incentive programs

  • Your employees must be able to visualize reaching the goal and receiving the award. The goal must not be perceived as too difficult to attain.

  • Everyone must understand the goals, what must be achieved to get the reward, as well as what the specific award will be.

  • Participants must be continually informed of their progress toward reaching the award.

  • Management and employees alike must buy into the program. The program must be viewed as an investment that directly affects the bottom-line in a positive way.

  • The ultimate goal should always be to reduce injuries and illnesses, but additional goals can be set for such things as improving the quality of safety meetings, increasing employee safety suggestions, or increasing participation in safety audits.

Sidebar: Don't let incentives interfere with reporting

Traditional safety incentive or recognition programs offer individual workers or teams financial or other material awards for achieving certain goals. The range of options is vast — pizza parties, cash, embroidered jackets, or a special meal fixed and served by the company brass. Games of chance, with a jackpot that rises as more days or weeks pass without an incident or injury, are also popular.

There are two objections to these programs:

  • Some employees will resist reporting incidents for fear of losing out on a prize.

  • A low (or zero) rate of lost-time incidents is not as important to improving safety performance in the long run as your process or activities that contribute to performance, according to some safety specialists.

    Still, incentives firms, and their satisfied customers who have seen injury rates and workers’ comp costs decline, say there are various ways to avoid under-reporting while improving performance:

  • One option is to focus only on injuries that result in an employee being absent from work for more than 24 hours. Urge employees to seek medical care as needed.

  • Have employees sign a roster certifying that they have had no work-related injuries that would disqualify them from a program.

  • Cancel an employee’s right to participate for non-reporting.

  • Don’t view an incentive game as an alternative to a safety program. Be proactive. Game materials from some vendors are packaged with pads of safety suggestion forms and other materials.

  • Set up consequences for foremen and supervisors who fail to report an injury they observe. Especially at small work sites, supervisors will know if an injury has occurred.

  • Work on developing a culture that values reporting injuries and incidents and frowns upon cover-ups.

    The United Auto Workers union favors rewarding positive actions that improve safety and health. These can include:

  • Reporting health and safety problems and suggesting solutions;

  • Recommending ergonomic solutions;

  • Attending training sessions;

  • Completing ergonomic risk analyses;

  • Completing documented walk-through surveys;

  • Daily inspections of equipment, such as machines, forklifts, cranes and hoists, and safety devices;

  • Hazardous materials reviews;

  • Substitutions of less hazardous materials; and

  • Implementing engineering controls to reduce ergonomic factors.

What about OSHA?

OSHA does not regulate the use of incentives, but will take action against the under-reporting of injuries and illnesses. An incentive policy does exist for work sites that participate in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs. It requires a close review of all injury and illness records by OSHA personnel to assure that reporting is taking place, and can include interviews with workers and managers to be sure that they understand reporting requirements. If no under-reporting is identified, OSHA will not take a position on a site’s incentive program. Evidence of gross under-reporting, however, can result in disqualification from VPP.

It’s unlikely that OSHA will ever regulate incentive programs. This means that the task falls to you to survey your employees, the culture of your workplace, the risks present, and your existing safety programs to determine how incentives could contribute to improved safety and health.

Adapted from an article written by Evelyn Sacks, editor of Business & Legal Report’s OSHA Compliance Advisor.