Another safety incident! Simon, the safety manager at a small manufacturing company, felt the pressure from upper management to figure out some way to get employees to buy into the company’s safety culture. He felt like he had tried everything, but most programs just lead to hiding injuries. Is there anything that works?

The burning question for many safety managers is, “How can we get employees to identify and correct unsafe conditions and behaviors?” For years, companies have encouraged employees to work safely by instituting safety incentive programs. But many of these programs have been less than effective. Some programs have caused employees to hide injuries or not report them, which defeats the goal of developing safe work practices.

Today, more companies are discovering that the most effective safety recognition programs are proactive. A proactive safety incentive program rewards employee behaviors that occur before an accident. These are behaviors that help prevent accidents and are mandated by the employer and/or OSHA regulations. An effective safety incentive program should aim for a balance between reducing injuries and encouraging safe activities.

Positive points

Proactive recognition programs emphasize working safely as a behavior. Employees are rewarded for:
  • Reporting injuries immediately, no matter how minor
  • Using safe procedures and practices
  • Complying with all safety rules
  • Warning coworkers about safety issues, hazards, or dangerous situations
  • Submitting safety suggestions
  • Participating on safety committees or teams
Some of these behaviors are mandatory and others are voluntary. But all of these behaviors — no matter how significant or insignificant they seem — should be recognized. Positive reinforcement strategies can help increase the frequency of these behaviors.

When we recognize and reward employees for certain behaviors, their awareness of and involvement in safety and health increases. They become interested and involved in uncovering and fixing unsafe work conditions and practices. They discover that reporting injuries as soon as they occur reduces lost work time and accident costs. A points-based program allows an employee or team to earn a reward once they have reached a certain number of points. Points might be awarded for:
  • Safety meeting attendance
  • Submitting suggestions for improving safety in the workplace
  • Conducting safety audits
  • Participating in safety training
  • Serving on a safety committee
  • Wearing required PPE consistently over a certain period of time

Size matters

Rewards given for positive behaviors are not tied to a specific goal, such as “no lost time accidents.” Instead, rewards emphasize safe behaviors to avoid goal-oriented outcomes such as injury-hiding. Emphasize the process, not the goal.

Employees are rewarded for specific incidents of safe behavior. All take responsibility for safe work practices and making sure that everyone complies. Employees are encouraged to watch out for coworkers by pointing out risky behaviors or reminding them to wear their PPE.

Rewards can be large or small. An employer may choose to give out only small rewards by choice or because of budget limitations. Or an employer may choose to give small rewards periodically throughout the year and then give a larger reward at the end of a quarter or year.

Employees may work more safely for a large incentive reward because they will keep the reward in mind. On the other hand, large rewards can send the wrong message, emphasizing the reward rather than changing behaviors to be more safety-conscious. Generally, only one individual or team receives a large reward. Others who tried just as hard may feel that the effort wasn’t worth it.

Some companies have found it works best to use smaller incentives and to award them more often. Experts suggest giving awards every 30 to 60 days to keep program costs low and provide continual feedback. Employee participation tends to increase with reasonable, obtainable rewards. Incentives should be chosen with care; they should be worth achieving and appeal to the employees. Vary incentives and goals to keep the program fresh.

While rewards are often tangible, managers should not downplay the importance of a pat on the back. Verbal positive reinforcement can play a vital role in a safety incentive program. A “Good job, Tom! Keep up the good work,” by a supervisor who passes by and observes a desired safe behavior, can have a great impact on the employee. Simple praise helps increase desired behaviors and it doesn’t cost a thing. Positive reinforcement of this type keeps the program “human.” When someone takes the time to observe and give praise, it affirms to the employee that his or her efforts have been noticed and appreciated.

Getting started

Companies must have a good safety program in place before instituting an effective incentive program. Incentive programs cannot replace poor work practices, poor job design, or unsafe working conditions. Safety is everyone’s responsibility, so the emphasis should be on eliminating unsafe behaviors.

Good planning will help ensure a program’s success.

1 Get upper management on board and fully supportive of the safety incentive program.
2 Determine a starting point in terms of the number of injuries/accidents and what they have cost the company.
3 Use that figure to calculate the cost-effectiveness of a safety incentive program.
4 State that the rewards will be based on safe behaviors and reaching various milestones.
5 Determine the budget and the types of incentives that will be used.
6 Establish a safety committee, if there isn’t one already, to provide input in determining the features of the program.
7 Be sure the program encourages proper injury and illness reporting.
8 Use a kick-off celebration to increase involvement. Inform employees what the program will accomplish and how they will benefit.
9 Hold people accountable for their areas of responsibility. Incentive programs should encourage employees to use proper safety precautions, even when this slows down their work schedules.
10 Continually measure progress. Look at injuries, incident rates, workers’ comp claims and costs to see if there is improvement.
11 Communicate the results and celebrate successes.
12 Get employees’ feedback on the program to see how it is viewed — are they excited about it? Are the rewards sufficient?
13 Follow up on issues. If employees report accidents, but don’t see action — such as retraining or purchasing new equipment — they may feel discouraged.

OSHA speaks

In its Voluntary Protection Programs policies and procedures manual, OSHA has taken the position that incentive programs should not focus on providing awards to employees solely for the reduction of incidents. Incentive programs should promote safety awareness and employee participation in safety-related activities. OSHA has a concern about the accuracy of the reporting of injuries and illnesses and notes that any cause for under-reporting must be addressed. In an April 1996 Letter of Interpretation, OSHA comments that many employers are changing the focus of their incentive programs to emphasize positive recognition for doing something right. This approach is more in line with what OSHA has envisioned.

The main objective of a safety incentive program is to reduce accidents and injuries. When you recognize and reward safe behaviors, employees’ safety awareness greatly increases. They become more involved in uncovering unsafe work practices and conditions — they buy in to safety. In a strong safety culture, everyone feels responsible for safety and pursues it on a regular basis.