Companies have incentive programs for everything from attendance to weight loss — and, of course, workplace safety. Some employers reward employees and departments for working accident-free for a period of time. Some reward them for reducing their lost-time incident rate. Others use them to solicit employee suggestions.

A great deal has been written about the proper use of safety incentive programs and whether or not companies should have such programs at all. In this article, we’re going to point out some things you should not do regarding safety incentives. We’ll call them “failure methods�; avoid these mistakes at all costs.

Failure Method #1 - No clear goal

A safety incentive program with the goal of “creating a safer workplace� is bound to fail. Most people know the formula for a good goal. It must be “S.M.A.R.T.� — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. A vague goal of a “safer workplace� meets only two of these criteria (Achievable and Realistic). Without a clear goal in mind for the incentive program, it will fail. Remember, if you don’t know where you are going, you will never get there.

Failure Method #2 - No clear rules or guidelines

A safety incentive program that has not been properly thought out will also fail. Every safety incentive program needs clear rules and guidelines. Optimally, the program should also be worked out on paper. For instance, ask a team to try to think of ways they could “cheat� and beat the system. For example, if an aspect of the incentive program was for departments to hold 12 safety meetings in a year, one clever department might decide to hold 12 in one week and then be done with safety meetings for the next 51 weeks!

Proper planning and thinking a little differently about how your program might be used can help pinpoint potential programs before kick-off and allow you to spell out exactly how the program will work.

Failure Method #3 - Reward the wrong thing

When safety incentive programs are criticized, it is often because they are rewarding the wrong thing. One such program provides an amount of money every year to everyone in a large company (700 employees in one location) based on the number of recordable injuries the plant has as a whole. If there are no injuries, every single employee may get $500. If there are ten recordable injuries, everyone may get $75. You can see the problem. In this type of incentive program — where the number of injuries reported are measured, and one person’s honesty could seriously affect the amount of money in the pocket of the entire workforce — injuries are likely to be under-reported.

Similarly, any incentive program that measures an absence of anything, i.e., injuries, near misses, etc., may be measuring the wrong thing. Programs that measure positive action like good behavior, training attended, safety suggestions made or inspections completed are more likely to get the results you are looking for.

Failure Method #4 - Reward everything

For a safety incentive program to be valuable, it needs to be specific and fair. Otherwise, employees will show hostility towards it quickly. One such plant has a pizza party for entire departments when the whole department works without an injury for the month. The problem is that the accounting department ends up getting monthly pizza parties (and no longer even thinks they are anything special) and the manufacturing areas have gone ten months with no pizza!

Failure Method #5 - Make the “prize� something no one wants or needs

Safety incentive programs that dangle the same prize to everyone, with no thought as to what they need or want, are doomed to fail. Imagine yourself getting excited over another contest with yet another mug as the prize. While one employee might be thrilled at the chance to play golf at a prestigious course, another might hate the game of golf. Another employee who brown-bags his lunch to work ever day might really like a new lunch box, but the employee who regularly eats lunch out at a restaurant probably couldn’t care less.

Good incentive programs often offer a selection of prizes. Great programs ask the employees what they would like to see offered before kick-off.

Failure Method #6 - Have the program only apply to employees

An incentive program that applies only to line-level workers will not be supported by management and will have a difficult time getting off the ground. If a requirement of the incentive program is to do an extra inspection every week, will a supervisor or manager (who is not included in the program and thereby not eligible for rewards) support the employees in taking the time to do the extra inspection? Incentive programs need to be supported across the board and everyone should be eligible to participate.

Failure Method #7 - Restrict employees’ input on program design and implementation

Before pulling out your megaphone and announcing your new safety incentive program to the entire wokforce, be sure to get feedback and suggestions from employees on the type of program, the rules and the rewards. (See sidebar below.)

Failure Method #8 - Keep the same program and prizes in place forever

Even the best planned safety incentive programs can become boring and stale after awhile. For example, if you have an incentive program that encourages employee safety suggestions, most people will get tired of it and no longer be motivated to participate if it is not exciting to them anymore. The program needs to be changed so that it keeps employees interested and so that it doesn’t become commonplace. If you can’t change the program, change the format or change the prizes but, most importantly, change something.

The above methods of failure are not comprehensive but should give you some ideas of what you should not do with respect to safety incentive programs. Remember, the overall goal is a safer workplace.

Sidebar: Give your employees a say in the matter

One company planned to hold a weight-loss incentive program in an effort to reduce employee health problems due to poor fitness. They announced that once a week, the employees would be weighed and that each department’s weight loss would be tracked. The biggest “losers� would get a year’s membership at a very nice fitness center across from the office.

What’s the problem here? No one wanted to be weighed, and no one wanted to spend their free time after work going to exercise at a gym. After taking employee suggestions, it was obvious that the employees were interested in programs to be healthier but wanted a reward that wouldn’t take away their home time. The company altered the program and offered fewer prizes. The new and improved rewards included a week trip to a fitness spa or a treadmill for home or tennis lessons or their choice of one of several other prizes related to fitness. (The requirement to be weighed weekly was also changed and made optional.)