If you search the Internet, you’ll find hundreds of ideas for incentive programs that promise to turn your safety processes around. While incentive gifts and rewards can be fun for employees who get excited about prizes (for a while), there are pitfalls to avoid in their use.

Program vs. process
Don’t be deluded into thinking that an incentive program will, by itself, improve the safety in your facility. These types of programs are not substitutes for the necessary components of a good safety culture. Safety, after all, is not a program — it is a dynamic and neverending process. A program by definition has a start and an end, but a process is ongoing.

There are many other ways to acknowledge employees who put safety first, including those represented by the R-E-W-A-R-D-S listed below.

Recognize with intangibles.
The philosophy of some managers is, “Why should I recognize safe practices? Isn’t that what I pay them for?” This type of manager misses the opportunity to reinforce safe practices in ways that strengthen a good safety culture.

Rewards do not have to be tangible goods. We often forget that recognizing employees is one of our least expensive and most effective ways of affecting performance. Studies show that employees are more likely to give outstanding performance when they are recognized, but will offer only average to low performance when they are not recognized.

A lot of jobs are difficult, repetitive and unpleasant. Often these jobs involve an element of danger. Recognition for following the required safety procedures can be very important to those who work under challenging conditions.

How can you offer meaningful praise and recognition? Incorporating the following concepts will help you obtain the desired results.
  1. Positive recognition needs to be specific — avoid generalizations and thank the employee for a specific act.
  2. Praise should be given before corrective communication. If a person is observed being 95 percent safe and is recognized for these safe practices before being reminded about the unsafe ones, he or she is more likely to continue the safe practices and correct the unsafe ones. (On the other hand, blatant, continual unsafe practices by employees must be handled by the disciplinary process in place.)
  3. Recognition should be ongoing; it does not have to be withheld until a job is completed — verbal compliments along the way can be very reinforcing.
  4. Recognition must be sincere. Often managers go overboard, causing employees to suspect the integrity of the compliment.
Emphasize how the accomplishment was made.
Many companies reward only when an end goal is reached, for instance, OSHA recordables, lost-time days, zero accidents, etc. While these are laudable accomplishments, these types of figures are lagging indicators — they are reported after the fact and give no indication of how the goals were reached.

Emphasis should be given instead to implementing good practices. Some of these good practices might include reporting “near hits,” developing lead teams that involve the hourly workforce in monitoring safety and communicating to the entire population, identifying/ pinpointing safe practices on every job, and giving positive recognition to reinforce these habits. When these types of practices are rewarded, goals are more likely to be reached and a positive safety culture will be achieved. Reinforcing these proactive practices promotes a healthy safety process.

Walk about; know your employees.
It is important for managers to get out of the office and walk about the facility to get a first-hand idea of what is actually happening. This activity offers a perfect opportunity to catch employees “doing things right” and to verbally recognize and praise safe practices. The mere fact that a manager takes time to walk through the plant, talk to people and recognize them goes a long way toward building trust between management and the hourly workforce.

Avoid cash prizes, bonuses and high-dollar gifts.
The evidence shows that cash prizes, bonuses and high-dollar gifts for reaching safety goals often drive employees to hide injuries and avoid reporting accidents. OSHA discourages such practices as high-dollar rewards for this very reason. Peer pressure can be overwhelming when there is a big prize for achieving such goals as having zero accidents or zero lost work days. This dangling carrot can be very enticing and can cause people to misrepresent what is actually happening in order to obtain the cash reward.

Research employee preferences when choosing a tangible prize.
If tangible rewards such as gifts are going to be used, it is a good idea to survey the population to determine the type of tangible rewards that are desired. Demographics play a role in selection as well. Ethnic population is another consideration in choosing gifts as rewards.

The way a gift is given is also important. If it is given with little positive communication about the reason for the gift, the effectiveness is diminished.

Deliver on promises or don’t make them.
When establishing an incentive program that involves a budget, be sure the money is there to support it. Once you promise something, it is hard to take it away. Before communicating to the workforce that prizes are going to be given, make sure the money is there to make it possible.

Spontaneous, surprise tangibles work well.
The most effective type of spontaneous tangible is a celebration for a specific accomplishment. Opening the soda machines for a day is an example of this type of tangible reward. Sometimes the expected becomes boring and the element of surprise is rewarding in itself.

Accenuate the positive
Continual positive recognition of specific safe behaviors and practices is the true path to success. Tangibles should never replace this practice. Employees are a company’s most valuable asset, and involving and recognizing them is a reward in itself.


Recognize with intangibles
Emphasize how the accomplishment was made
Walk about; know your employees
Avoid cash prizes, bonuses and high-dollar gifts
Research employee preferences and the gifts themselves
Deliver on promises or don’t make them
Spontaneous, surprise tangibles work well