The subject of safety recognition — more commonly known as safety incentives — always seems to raise considerable debate. Both believers and non-believers of safety incentives have expressed good points for both sides. Those companies that do not participate in safety incentives worry that such a program will cause employees to not report accidents, rather than change the safety culture itself. Those who use safety incentives stand by the fact that negative behavior is punished with consequences and positive behavior is rewarded.

The idea of rewards is not new. Pavlov’s dog is the most common that comes to mind. The dog understood that he would get food when the bell rang, causing him to salivate. Eventually, the dog would salivate when he heard the bell. Thankfully, humans are a more complex species. However, the theory, even at a dog’s level, is correct.

A 1997-2001 study by Paul M. Goodrum and Manish Gangwar proved that companies in construction that incorporate a safety incentive program have lower lost-time incident rates, lower restricted incidents rates and lower workers’ compensation rates compared to companies that do not use safety incentives. The majority of safety professionals, however, have found that incentives are not a cure-all for safety issues and will not work without an extensive safety training program.

Recognition and reinforcement

A number of accidents and injuries occur not because of a lack of training, but because a worker isn’t paying attention or cuts corners. Judy Cardin, CEO of Promotional Consultants, Inc. ( states, “Training teaches awareness and best safety practices, however recognition and reinforcement keeps safety at the top of the employee’s mind.”

She gives a simple example: Let’s say your safety topic for the month is about wearing protective gloves. You conduct the training, and everyone leaves motivated to comply. Yet, one person feels the gloves are uncomfortable and removes them during work. No accident or injury occurs, so the worker feels they don’t need to wear the gloves, ever. This reinforces the negative behavior of not wearing protective gloves.

Cardin does not like to use the word “incentive,” but rather “recognition.” “To be successful you shouldn’t use incentives to cause safe behavior, rather you should recognize safe behavior when it happens.” In the case of the gloves, that means rewarding the workers that you see wearing them.

Team vs. individual recognition

There are two ways to structure an incentive program — team and individual. Cardin explains that you should never structure only team incentives. Peer pressure can be good, but it may force one team member to not report an accident because they do not want to punish the entire team. Instead, rewards should be given on an individual basis; individuals can control their behavior without worrying about the success of a team. Team recognition can work but only when individual recognition is included.

Safety recognition can be used in two ways — with training or on the job. Students should be rewarded for completing training, passing a course, passing a quiz or participating in a training session. This can be as simple as giving a certificate of completion. The other option is to recognize the employee when you see him or her doing something correct on the job. Whether you see good behavior or a safe act, it can be very effective to award those employees on the spot. Others will see the positive reinforcement and want to emulate the good behavior.

Awards: monetary vs. merchandise

Who doesn’t like cash? I know I do. However, when it comes to rewarding employees, Cardin suggests merchandise awards over cash or gift-card awards.

“Merchandise awards offer more perceived value than money. They also give your worker a bragging right and something they can use everyday to remind them that they did a good job,” she says. One cannot tie a meaning to a cash gift, and cash is seen as income rather than a gift. Using reward money to buy a case of beer or groceries is consumed and forgotten; receiving safety awards gives you recognition — and recognition is one of the strongest human motivators.

For safety recognition to be effective, it has to be something tangible that someone can place meaning on and use it or see it everyday. It can be something as simple as a baseball hat, coffee mug or certificate they can hang on the wall.

Rewards create positive morale among your workforce, but cash awards when viewed as income become expected. Although they say cash is king, it isn’t in the instance of employee recognition.

Multiple options

There are multiple options for implementing safety recognition — everything from safety games that you play on a daily basis, to a points system that you can use to reward employees monthly, quarterly or yearly. Safety recognition is incredibly flexible. Like training, it helps you to save money and keep your workers healthy. It also takes training to the next level by keeping safety at the top of your employees’ minds.

Safety recognition will help you excel your safety initiatives, as long as you implement it correctly and use it as one part of your safety and health solution. Safety recognition does not work unless you lay the ground work for safety by continuing to train your employees, setting a safe example and providing them with the tools and knowledge they need to act safely.