It's easy to see that there's been a long-standing debate about the use of safety-related incentives. Many of us have had good, bad and mixed experiences with incentives and related rewards. And since many organizational situations are very complex, it's difficult to understand what's happening when incentives are being used.

But before you jump too far in either direction, take some time to think about what's going on around you.

Are incentives used throughout your organization to help improve productivity or quality at the worker level and upward?

Have they been known to enhance performance, or are they simply recognized as an entitlement without being appropriately and responsibly attached to specific and measurable goals?

Along this continuum there are many experiences, including companies that have used incentives only to discover they are a logistical nightmare to administer. Many of us have been there before and may still be in a quandary. With all this in mind, consider these three areas of thought regarding safety-related incentives before you take your personal stance.

Think about your culture

If incentives are already a part of the way you do business in your organization, by all means consider their use. This is especially true if they've seemingly been effective in improving morale, quality or productivity. The cultural orientation of your organization should dictate what can be considered with safety-related incentives.

If your company regularly celebrates success with social events and other gatherings, this may be a valid part of your incentives package for safety. If small types of rewards, such as lunch tickets or a token for a soda and subsequent recognition, are given on a regular basis - this too may be a consideration.

But if incentives and celebrations are not a part of your culture, or they have caused harmful detraction, then just maybe you need to rethink your direction.

What shouldn't be considered?

Providing large gifts and rewards for outcome-based performance is a real no-no. I'm talking about goals and gifts that relate to the absence of lost-time or reportable injuries or illnesses. You know all about this game. Gifts are given when employees in a group or company go a specific length of time without a recordable or lost-time injury. And the gifts - relatively large amounts of cash, vacations or automobiles - are giveaways that go way over the top! For the employees, the gift is what becomes most important, rather than the positive changes in safety-related actions and the underlying attitudes regarding those actions.

Just as critical, these kinds of rewards often encourage hiding and under-reporting of near misses and injuries that need to be further explored to improve safety performance. They can also bring about the wrong kind of peer pressure and a lot of fear induced by some co-workers who want to obtain a reward no matter what the cost.

How do you know when the reward or incentive overshadows the ultimate goal to work safer and remain healthy?

1) When employees are not open, honest, and engaged about wanting to improve safety performance. Employee engagement comes when leaders and supervisors are supportive and honest with regard to safety and don't feel that all they need to do is hand out gifts once in a while. Taking the easy way out rather than digging in and making safety a part of every task can cause irreparable harm and breed a low-trust culture for safety.

2) Even more, when all the shoptalk surrounds the gift rather than a thoughtful balance of the actions that bring about individual and group pride in safety performance, the incentives are too big to be healthy for anyone. These types of incentives do not help to align employee actions with any sort of vision for excellence in safety.

Tie to positive & proactive performance

Thoughtful and well-designed incentive programs tie directly to well-understood and specific kinds of performance goals.

And don't forget about managers and supervisors. Their performance reviews must include supportive safety-related actions. What are these people doing to uphold and enhance everyday safety - and how are they rewarded? Are they regularly involved with hazard abatement, physical inspections, employee coaching sessions, or incident reporting?

At the worker level, involvement and everyday actions should also be monitored with feedback that eventually can be tied to incentives - if appropriate. Do employees attend and participate in incident reviews, help to develop procedures or get involved in other activities that proactively support safety improvement? If your people are involved in a behavior-based process, incentives are easy to tie to goal-setting and the continual use of proactive rates of safe performance.

For example, a goal may be to reach 100-percent safe behavior in terms of personal protective equipment use and hold that behavior for a period of time. The incentive may be a celebration with small forms of recognition that are specific to the actions required to achieve that goal. Individual standouts and champions can also be recognized in a similar way.

A word of caution: Keep the competition inside the groups (as opposed to between groups) you're working with unless you want ongoing challenges that question the fairness of what you're trying to achieve. And be careful what you institutionalize and formalize; put it in writing - it may come back to haunt you. Keep it simple yet don't carve things in stone.

No substitute

In no way should safety incentives be considered a substitute for good safety management. Use of sound engineering controls, substitution of less hazardous materials, procedural controls, ergonomics, and supportive management are the fundamentals of safety. When used in concert with such practices, and when correctly applied, I believe safety incentives can add value and a little bit of spice to your safety management efforts.

It's clear that incentives work best in healthy work environments where supervisors and employees get along well, and appropriately applied incentives just add some icing to the cake. In some cases, rewards can make the giver more attractive, psychologically speaking, which can help lead others to deeper and more durable changes in safety performance. Research has shown that incentives can produce positive outcomes, but keep your method of delivery in mind.

Some time ago I worked with an executive who said, "Why shouldn't we reward and recognize workers for good safety performance? My bonus payout is up to 150 percent of my base salary for doing just what I'm supposed to do." Does it make sense to reward and recognize your employees for doing what they're supposed to do in safety? I believe the answer is yes - it shows that you value your employees' safety efforts.

If you have a story to tell about how incentives were applied in your organization and what happened - good or bad, we'd like to hear from you. Please email your story to me. It could make for a good future article in ISHN.