Over the past two decades, a great deal of research and discussion has centered on safety incentives and both the positive and negative impacts of various approaches. While many organizations use prizes and awards for no lost-time injuries, a definitive correlation between successful safety performance and incentive awards has still not been proven, although organizations that use them infer a connection.

Some recent research, however, would suggest that incentive awards are still popular, but that the prerequisite for getting the reward is being challenged.

In his book The Psychology of Safety, E. Scott Geller espouses a set of some 50 principles for what he terms a Total Safety Culture. Dr. Geller notes in principle #9 that safety incentive programs should focus on the process rather than the outcomes. In other words, you should reward what people do (specific, risk-reducing behaviors), rather than the consequences of what they may or may not have done.

When we examine Geller’s approach within the context of the accident theory of multiple causation, specifically as it relates to some of the causes of workplace accidents, the approach seems to makes sense, at least to those who support and advocate the behavior-based approach to safety. Says Geller, “One of the most frequent common-sense mistakes in safety management is in the use of outcome-based incentive programs. Giving rewards for avoiding an injury seems reasonable and logical. But it readily leads to covering up minor injuries and a distorted picture of safety performance. The activator-behavior-consequence contingency demonstrates that safety incentives need to focus on process activities, or safety related behaviors.”

Participation-based awards

This approach is not unlike that advocated by other safety professionals and some quality advocates. In Total Quality for Safety & Health Professionals, F. David Pierce notes, “Historically, we have used safety awards as carrots for worker safety. Most times these focus on workers staying injury-free, not on worker safety participation. It’s for this reason that these injury-free-based award programs have mixed results. Participation-based awards…can significantly build employee participation…and they can change the perceptions destructive to safety award programs.” The focus should be on involvement, Pierce adds.

Pierce suggests tying individual safety accountability to each worker’s compensation program, including management and workers.

Long-standing tradition

The practice of rewarding or recognizing employees for safety achievements has been a long-standing tradition in numerous organizations. The origins are not clear, but most safety people have used them in one form or another.

While the intentions of recognition or incentive programs are generally honorable, they are often ill-designed and poorly thought out. They are based, to a large degree, on the principles of behavior modification and motivation (with particular emphasis on the antecedent-behavior-consequence model), sometimes by individuals with just a cursory or passing knowledge of behavioral issues.

The primary approach used in behavior modification programs is to first attempt to eliminate unwanted or at-risk behaviors that may lead to accidents or injuries, or to create acceptable new responses. While some may consider these principles to be sound, when administered by people with only a fleeting knowledge of how these principles work, they sometimes produce the exact opposite of what they were intended to achieve. Like the saying goes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Focus on theory

But the real debate centers around how effective these programs are, and whether they really help improve safety in the long run. There are many opinions that both support and shoot down the safety recognition theory, but what real evidence exists, and is it conclusive and absolute? This is where we have to give serious consideration to the academic studies that focus on the theory of human behavior, compared with those workplaces in which these programs have been tried and proven to be either effective or worthless.

There have been numerous studies conducted on the factors that constitute effective safety management activities. One of these studies was conducted by A. Cohen and M.J. Smith of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health1, noting:

1) People work more safely when they are involved directly in decision-making processes. They have to be given a channel to communicate their thoughts to management and receive positive feedback.

2) People work more safely when they have specific and reasonable responsibilities, authority, goals and objectives with respect to identifiable safety performance standards. 3) People are more highly motivated and work more safely when they have immediate feedback about their work.

Cohen and Smith’s study indicated that among industry leaders in accident-free hours, use of monetary incentives was played down, and management frequently expressed the opinion that safety contests, give-away prizes and once-per-year dinners simply did not work.

What works?

So how do some current safety practitioners approach the controversial topic of safety incentives? Here are some actual, creative ideas:

At McGill University in Montreal, Wayne Wood, manager of environmental health and safety, reports that they now have safety committees in departments in lab discipline who submit annual reports on their activities. From the reports, two committees that have demonstrated the highest level of achievements for the year are given cash prizes ($600 each). While the initiative is too new to be able to rate its success, Wood says interest in the new program is extremely high.

Another innovative idea comes from Samuel J. Sanguedolce, CIH, CSP, safety manager, ADP - Investor Communications Division, which recently started a program called “Safety Suggestion of the Month.” The incentive program encourages workers to incorporate safety into their daily thought processes and to reward outstanding safety ideas. Each month the safety committee reviews all of the suggestions submitted. Suggestions can be kept anonymous if requested. The suggestion that “best enhances the safety of the work environment” is the winner. The winner is issued 10 ACE awards, which can be accumulated and cashed in for prizes selected from a catalog, and access to a reserved parking spot next to the building entrance for one month. All suggestions receive 1 ACE award.

The McIntosh Box and Pallet Co., Inc., East Syracuse, N.Y., has come up with a number of ways in which KPI (Key Performance Indicators) are used across a wide range of the company’s operations:

Manager’s Discretionary Points — Every week the plant manager has an allotment of points per plant to give away to employees for going above and beyond the call of duty and demonstrating at least one of six core values — commitment, discipline, synergy, respect, constant improvement, excellence. The plant manager writes up a short statement of who earned how many points and why, which is then distributed to all plants for public recognition. The points are tracked by the human resource manager and are redeemed for prizes. Employees have input as to what types of prizes are given out.

Accident Update Reports — The plant safety coordinators can qualify for points by writing up an accident update after every accident that is the result of an unsafe act. These reports are distributed company-wide and must be distributed by the end of the day on the day after the accident.

Accident Investigation AND Solution — The plant safety coordinator is eligible for points for every complete root cause accident investigation with corrective action. The solution should have a timeline of no more than one week. These points will be awarded when the corrective action is complete.

In looking at these few examples, it is clear that, no matter what your philosophy towards incentives, creativity is a key to success.