The Pros and Cons of Safety Incentives

The Pros and Cons of Safety Incentives: Be Careful!

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

For decades, organizational leaders have used incentives to try and motivate safety. The idea is that providing money for injury avoidance will get employees to “try harder” to stay safe. In reality, it simply encourages non-reporting which is why OSHA now frowns upon outcome-based incentives. Fortunately, most leaders using incentives have moved to process-based rewards. This brings up several important considerations:

  1. Proactive, process-based incentives are substantially better than those that are outcome-based.
  2. Process-based incentives, when used correctly, can be effective. However, they can be “pencil whipped” too
  3. The best “incentive” is genuine appreciation and ongoing recognition.

Cautions with Process-Based Incentives

Employees may pencil whip close call forms, behavioral observations and safety suggestions if they’re getting rewards for the number of cards they fill out. Process-based incentives, if used, should focus on the quality of efforts instead of quantity (or quotas). Second, there is a hidden problem rarely discussed before implementing incentives. Once you’ve started an incentive program, it can become an entitlement. Employees may quit doing proactive safety efforts if the rewards they were getting for doing them go away.

Tips for Using Process-Based Incentives

Small tokens of appreciation with safety themes like fire extinguishers and first aid kits can be an effective way for leaders to reinforce safety. These are often given after an employee provides high quality suggestions, demonstrates exceptional safety behaviors (e.g., cleaning up a spill after a shift someone else created), and regularly cautioning coworkers about at-risk behavior. Surprise rewards (e.g., safety fairs with invited families, pizza parties) for safety achievements can also be effective.

The Best Incentive

Sincere, one-on-one recognition and appreciation for working safely is the best “incentive.” Empirical research shows:

  • 67% of employees whose managers focused on their strengths were fully engaged in their work, as compared to only 31% of employees whose managers focused on their weaknesses (Gallup, 2018).
  • Providing more positive feedback and recognition increases the measured frequency of safety behaviors and improves safety culture (Fogas et al., 2011, Hoffmeister et al., 2013, Zohar and Lura, 2003).
  • Employees who report feeling valued by their employer are 93% more likely to demonstrate discretionary effort on the job (APA Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, 2012).

Recognition and appreciation should be the default reward that leaders use to motivate safe work practices. Ongoing recognition improves morale and increases the likelihood employees will keep operating safely. Smart leaders use more recognition to increase employee engagement and prevent SIFs. It’s the best incentive of all.

At Propulo, we help leaders develop formal and informal ways to promote safe work practices through ongoing recognition and appreciation.


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