In a recent cultural survey done for one of our clients we received interesting results regarding incentives for safety. The organization has a generous bonus tied to safety based on the entire facility being accident-free. However, many hourly employees indicated that they did not feel the bonus was a good idea.

In the words of one employee: “First of all, no one wants to go out on the job and get hurt. If they do, shame on them. There is a bonus issue, which falls under the safety category. If you do not get hurt on the job, the money issue comes into play. If you go to the clinic, get time off, no money for anyone. So if you get hurt, do you report it? You tell me!”

From another: “There are many of us here who have gone years and years without an accident. None of this ever gets mentioned. One individual gets hurt and it seems to wipe out all of the good records that have been going on. If we are going to reward for safety, let’s reward the individuals who know how to behave safely year after year, but have never received even a comment such as ‘good job’.”

Why use lagging indicators?

Most incentives, or bonuses, are tied to results based onlack of bad results; lack of accidents or low number of accidents— all lagging indicators. It is our belief when you place a dollar amount on accidents not occurring, you’ll get the results you want, but they may be false or the result of hiding accidents. Results are numbers; they do not tell you how or why you achieved them. One point in time does not make a trend.

Not enough research and data is available to truly tie the use of incentives to long-term improvement in safety results. In our experience, short-term success is sometimes realized but rarely sustained when incentives are used to drive results. Most clients’ employees report that they have seen so many incentive programs come and go that they treat them with no respect.

Figure 1

Program vs. process

One problem with some safety incentive programs is that they are just that — programs. In safety, all elements need to be part of a process. Programs are designed to have a beginning and an end. A process is a continuous entity that keeps going on. (See Figure 1.)

Before addressing a safety process in a facility you must learn about and understand the “Now” culture of the plant. Only then can you begin to develop a “New” safety culture. A New Safety Culture emphasizes employee ownership and accountability. It starts with “plant leadership” behaviors and “organizational” behaviors. Hourly workers’ behaviors often mirror management and supervision.

In a New Safety Culture all employees take full responsibility for their own safety and others’; they know the safe conditions and specific, safe behaviors required in each work area. They make daily observations and provide feedback, both positive and corrective. Process measures are in place. Process improvements that prevent accidents are celebrated. The New Safety Culture becomes very apparent to all as they see continuous improvement over time, in statistical control. Periodic follow-up cultural surveys that reveal the perceptions of all employees related to the Total Safety Process are essential.

When’s the pay-off?

When does the use of rewards and incentives in a safety process pay off? A company that uses “proactive” tools such as near-miss reporting and total involvement in defining safe practices has many opportunities for rewarding and recognizing individuals as well as the total population. In an effective near-hit process, incidents are communicated plant-wide and solutions/suggestions are asked for and acted on. When it is apparent that causes for near hits are corrected (especially reoccurring incidents) a celebration is called for.

Most observation checklists are broken down into categories: PPE, housekeeping, tool and equipment use, body use, etc. By tracking results in these categories, improvement can be communicated and recognized. The data collected through these observations can provide numerous ways to recognize and reward employees.

In a particular client facility, low scores in well-defined areas of housekeeping were frequent. The Lead Team (comprised primarily of hourly workers) initiated a campaign to improve housekeeping. Every time the scores improved, however slight, the plant management recognized and thanked the entire plant population efforts. As individual area observations were made, observers encouraged their peers to continue improving housekeeping. When a significant improvement trend was achieved, the plant celebrated with a meal — cooked by management — and small commemorative gifts for all.

In another company, although warned not to tie bonuses to observation daily scores, such a bonus was instituted. To compound matters, “warehouse & shipping” was separated from “production.” When production received a higher bonus than warehouse & shipping due to higher scores, the process was in danger of becoming a program. Observation scores became inflated, daily observations dropped off. It took several months working with the Lead Team, management and hourly employees to bring back the trust and confidence in the process.

“Good job”

Certainly, rewarding excellent safety results is a good idea if you know how you achieved them and have measured the proactive steps to get there. Above all, recognition of specific safe behaviors/practices on a daily basis needs to occur in the form of the most powerful tool: positive reinforcement, “good job” and “thank you.”

Employees are a company’s most valuable asset and resource. Encouraging them to share their experiences, knowledge of their jobs and recommendations is a path to success, and no price can be put on that.


A. Cohen and M.J. Smith of the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety, Canada

Michael M. Williamsen, “Six Sigma Safety,” Professional Safety, Journal of the American Society of Safety Engineering, June 2005 Issue, 41-49

Shahla Siddiqi, “OSHA’s Review of Incentive Programs Continues,” ISHN, posted 05/06/00

University of Arkansas, 1996 TEN article by Ed Zimmer, The Entrepreneur Network

Wayne G. Pardy, “Safety Incentives, Recognition and Awareness Programs: One Company’s Experience and An Industry Perspective,” (Tradition…What Some Others Think) January 1997

Keith A. Krout, President, The Center for Safety Development Inc., “Is Safety Really the No. 1 Priority?,” American Safety & Emergency Response, 2004

Ron Prichard, Aon Worldwide Resources, “Safety Incentives: A Critical Assessment,” Expert Commentary, April 2001, International Risk Management Institute.


When considering using incentives in the Safety Process, follow the PRICELESS rule:

Prepare: Extensive preparation must be done for any incentives plan to be used.

Reinforce: Recognition and reinforcement of safe behaviors/practices should be delivered on a day-to-day basis.

Involve: The entire plant population needs to be involved in any facet of a Safety Process.

Communicate & Celebrate: Continuous, clear communication of measurements of the Safety Process is essential.

Evaluate the culture: Get a clear picture of the Safety Culture as it exists.

Leading indicators; not lagging: Reward steps taken that prevent injuries for a more profound, lasting effect.

Element of surprise: Most people like a reward that is unexpected.

Specific: Recognition needs to be given for specific measurements.

Simple: The simpler the plan the better.