You've read about how the right safety incentive program can dramatically change your employees' behavior, and how it can significantly reduce the number and severity of incidents. You've heard the success stories from factories and service businesses in your locale. Now you're ready to try it. Where do you start? How do you make sure that your first attempt doesn't fall flat?

As with most tools, fantastic payoffs require skilled and committed use. Used incorrectly, an incentive program wastes money and time and casts a pall over any future programs.

Creating and running a successful safety incentive program requires learning seven simple but critical secrets:

Secret 1 - Do your homework

"If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there." Start your planning process by knowing where you are. Look at your incident record over the past two to three years. Is it getting better? Worse? Staying the same? How do your accident rates compare to your peers? What do your "average" Lost Time and Recordable incidents cost?

Read a year's worth of incident reports and find out whether your employees need: a) basic information on safe work practices? b) an incentive to work safely when no one's looking? c) recognition for working safely? Or all three?

Secret 2 - Cost justify your program

In today's business environment, managers demand considerable justification to fund an incentive program. Once the true costs of incidents are calculated you can then justify the cost-effectiveness of an incentive program.

One company in the food industry reduced lost-time injuries among it's 3,500 employees by 56 percent in the first 12 months of its program. The safety director calculated the cost savings at over $1 million, and in a presentation to management compared the bottom-line effect of the incentive program to an increase in sales of over $60 million. She easily secured funding to continue the program.

Your insurance carrier should be able to give you a general idea of how your rates will be affected if you reduce accidents. Like the savvy safety director above, compare the effect of potential savings to an increase in sales. (See "Want to Grab a Manager's Attention?" by Dr. Richard D. Fulwiler, ISHN, May 2002.)

Secret 3 - Pick the right incentive

This is a tough choice. Historically, money has been the incentive of choice for most managers. That's changing. A recent survey conducted by Simmons Market Research Bureau found that cash had fallen from first to fourth place as the incentive used. Nearly twice as many companies use merchandise instead of cash.

The cash amounts awarded in safety incentive programs do not motivate people to change their behavior. They spend the award on a tank of gas or at the grocery store, and weeks later forget where the money went. Awarding more money doesn't help - as the prize increases so does the likelihood of an employee hiding an injury so he or she doesn't lose their award.

Build your program around awards with "trophy" value - items that recognize the contribution for months or years. In a well-designed incentive program the incentive is never so great that an employee will risk hiding an injury.

Secret 4 - Reward frequently

Effective incentive programs reward participation and performance frequently - at least monthly, often weekly, and in some cases even daily. Reward individuals, groups and supervisors.

Secret 5 - Choose your agency wisely

Search for an incentive agency that can create a program that supports your existing safety program. A well-designed program blends seamlessly with your current educational and promotional efforts. Look for an agency that will custom design its system to you.

Secret 6 - Plan for the "long haul"

Maintaining enthusiasm is a challenge. Employees turn their backs on programs when managers forget to report January's performance until March or hand out April's awards in June.

Meet the challenge by creating a list of tasks you'll need to do and when you'll need to do them. Delegate judiciously: have department managers present awards, have safety committee members track and report performance data. Follow up often. It's the day-in, day-out consistent recognition of positive employee behavior that makes your program successful.

Secret 7 - Measure your progress

Between the first six and nine months of a program take a critical look at how it's being accepted. Are employees talking about the program? Are they looking forward to their awards? Are you beginning to see a reduction in the number of incidents and their severity?

Two or three years into an incentive program you'll want to think about changes. Over time, successful incentive programs shift emphasis from education to recognition of safe behavior and achievement.