No matter whom you ask, almost everyone agrees that good safety performance needs to be recognized and rewarded. On that key point, there is general agreement. But while safety incentive and recognition awards have been around for some time, there is very little agreement on their value, and upon which principles to base their implementation or eradication.

Scratch a safety professional and you’ll find an opinion on safety incentives underneath. The difficult part is coming up with consistent principles, definitions or guidelines upon which to base safety incentive and recognition approaches, and knowing how they can add value to existing safety systems and help promote outstanding safety performance. Still greater difficulty exists in proving these programs actually result in definitive performance improvement over the long term. In other words, can we prove a definite cause and effect relationship, and is that relationship desirable, strategic and reasonable?

Is it working?
If a recognition or reward system is set up, and injury rates go down, does this necessarily mean that the program was the direct cause, or were there other factors? Conversely, if your injury rates and claims costs go through the roof, in spite of the fact that you may have a very comprehensive safety incentive scheme in place, what would you do next?

Safety performance recognition has existed under a number of different names for quite some time, but if we hope to use these tools and techniques correctly, we’ve got to learn whether, when and how best to use them. If used, they must be used with insight, intelligence, honesty and integrity, and with consideration for both the minds and bodies of those they are intended to recognize or motivate.

In The Service Edge, authors Ron Zemke and Dick Schaaf write, “Incentive systems aren’t automatic performance generators. … They can even backfire and be counterproductive when they don’t work out in the fashion intended.”

In a survey published in the May/June 1997 edition of Canadian Occupational Safety, respondents were almost equally split over their safety incentive beliefs and practices. By far, the most common incentive programs used by those who responded to the survey were those based on being accident-free for a specific period of time.

Many of the programs profiled consisted of incremental stages of year-long accident-free periods (e.g., one year, two years, five years, etc.), while others tied the incentives to reducing injury statistics from the previous year. It is these types of accident-free incentives that have drawn the most criticism, especially from government and labor. Yet, they still appear to be the most popular, while at the same time being the most misused, maligned and misunderstood.

Giving some definition
Perhaps the best place to start is to examine dictionary definitions and see if the words “incentive,” “recognition” and “award” actually mean what we think they mean. Generally speaking, incentives are rewards with some strings attached, commonly referred to as the carrot-and-stick approach. The presumption is that if you do certain things or reach certain goals, you will receive your reward.

incentive: n. 1. A motivating influence, stimulus. 2. a. An additional payment made to employees as a means of increasing production. b. (as modifier): an incentive scheme. adj. 3. Serving to incite to action.

The rewards associated with incentives are usually financial in nature, or hold some other monetary value. Pay for performance, incentive compensation and commission sales schemes, for example, are included under these incentives programs. But there are other forms of incentive as well: sharing in the psychological rewards from a successful effort, having new career opportunities, working in a more fulfilling job.

recognition: 1. The act of recognizing or fact of being recognized. 2. Acceptance of acknowledgement of a claim, duty, fact, truth, etc. 3. a. A token of thanks or acknowledgement.

Though somewhat similar, the motivational power in recognition lies mainly in its ability to appeal to an employee’s sense of pride. It’s the “pat on the back,” the “coffee and donuts with the CEO” or the “congratulations on a job well done” type of system. The important thing to remember about recognition is that different people like to be recognized differently. Essentially, recognition is a reward that costs less than incentives. Find out what makes a person tick and you can use recognition. At least, that’s the theory.

Bribing workers?
Just how controversial traditional worker safety incentives can be is reflected by the Oct. 8, 1996, comments of the president of the Canadian Labor Congress, Bob White. He stated that on-the-job hazards are costing billions, yet some employers are bribing workers to keep work injuries secret. Employers should be making their operations safer, not running contests that tempt workers to lie, said White.

“Many companies run programs designed to reduce reporting of workplace injuries by offering prizes, like company jackets or even vacations abroad, to the worker or team that goes the longest time without filing a compensation claim,” White said. “Why not concentrate on the real source of the costs by reducing the injury rates, deaths and diseases that are caused by the workplace?”

In the Sept. 28, 1989, issue of ENR magazine, one company was shown to be offering pizza, savings bonds and jackets to employees and groups of employees who attained the often elusive distinction of being lost-time-injury-free for one year. Some of the employee comments reflected in the article included:

“I was so frightened that I was going to spoil the record of 400 days that you can’t imagine.”

“Nobody wants to be the one to spoil the record.”

“I think that if somebody spoils the record or gets hurt, he’ll get buried in concrete so nobody will ever find out about it and they won’t lose the record.”

These comments may be symptomatic of the serious dysfunction of many safety incentive approaches used in North America, and indeed entire safety philosophies and resulting safety management systems worldwide.

In the opinion of Robert Sass, Ph.D., in a 1984 paper entitled The Value of Safety Contests: A Point of View, “The tacit assumption behind safety contests is that workers are primarily responsible for accidents through their carelessness, accident proneness or bad attitudes, and that they can therefore stop accidents from happening merely by resolving to be more careful, to obey their supervisors or to have a positive attitude towards safety. ... Carelessness and accident proneness are false accident causation theories which blame the victim, the worker, for accidents and deflect attention from unsafe conditions.”

Sad example
Perhaps the saddest and most dysfunctional example of a safety system was reflected in the Westray Mine Public Inquiry Report. In the early morning of May 9, 1992, a violent explosion ripped through the depths of the Westray coal mine in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, killing all 26 miners working there at the time. While many terrible stories were told of the events leading up to that explosion, interesting information came to light about safety at the mine. Even more interesting was the evidence presented about the use of incentives at the mine, and the safety award given to the mine just one month before the fatal explosion. While Westray management was notorious for its ignorance of safety, at the suggestion of the managing director of the Chamber of Mineral Resources in Nova Scotia, Westray applied for — and won — a prestigious mining industry safety award, one that is based on the frequency of reportable injuries.

The problem with the award, and other safety awards of this type, is that they say nothing about safety or risk management. They simply tell you that for a given period, usually the artificial period of one year, no lost-time injuries were reported, investigated or documented, at least on paper.

The bottom line — No matter what type of award, recognition or incentive program you are considering, it should ensure this: if it doesn’t address, minimize or mitigate risk in your business, forget about it. It’s that simple.