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The Truth about Safety Incentive Programs

By Carl Potter, CSP, CMC and Deb Potter, PhD

In spite of the millions of dollars companies spend every year on safety incentive programs, research shows that injuries continue to occur. Additionally, such programs often actually demotivate employees, at best yielding diminishing returns over time. Does your organization have one of the following ineffective safety incentive programs or something similar?

  • Play Lotto!: In some companies, the names of those employees who work without a recordable injury are entered in a lottery-like drawing for great prizes, like exotic vacations or a new pick-up truck. The result is one very happy winner and a lot of disappointed losers. Talk about demotivation.

  • You can’t bank on it: Another popular incentive program is like giving every employee a checkbook full of withdrawals but no deposits. Each worker begins the year with a “safety fund.” Every time a recordable injury occurs to anyone in the company, a specific amount is subtracted from every employee’s “account.” At the end of the year, employees receive the remaining balance as a bonus. As a result, employees look for targets to blame – often their co-workers or management – as their bonuses decrease. Because they’re usually busy pointing fingers at others for their smaller bonuses, employees working under this kind of incentive system rarely pause to consider what their own role could be in the effort to reduce injuries.

  • Racking up points: Other companies dole out incentives based on a points system. Employees accumulate points by attending safety meetings, participating on safety committees, successfully completing audits, submitting near-miss reports, etc. Management deducts points for injuries or vehicle incidents. Employees receive monetary rewards based on their accumulated points. The problem with this system is that employees often feel as if they have no control over the outcome. As a result, employees and supervisors tend to under-report or play games with the numbers, so no one trusts the outcome.

Unfortunately, most organizations that have adopted these and other forms of safety incentive programs find that the results are significantly less than they hoped for. The programs can be costly and, in the long run, do not typically result in a reduction of injury rates. Rather than try to “buy” your employees’ commitment to safety, consider these techniques to engage everyone to take personal responsibility for safety:

1.   Make safety a core value: Safety needs to be as important to your organization as production and profits are. Let employees know that no job is so important that it should be done at personal risk. Start every meeting with an update from a safety contact.

2.   Commit management to worker safety: When executives, managers, and supervisors are actively engaged in the organization’s safety efforts, employees will notice. Leaders can demonstrate their commitment to safety by following the company’s safe work procedures, listening to and acting upon employees’ concerns, and participating in safety meetings.

3.   Involve employees in the safety process: Encourage employees to take part in making your workplace safe by including them in safety committees, inspections, accident investigations, and safety suggestion programs. Give them time to participate during their regular work hours and recognize their efforts.

4.   Set high expectations for safe behavior: Research shows that employees will usually work hard to meet their managers’ and supervisors’ expectations, so among those stated expectations must be safe behavior: everyone will follow safety procedures and wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Managers and supervisors should also expect employees to identify, control, and report all hazards found in the workplace.

5.   Allow employees to set their own goals: Most incentive programs develop around corporate safety objectives, but employees may resist the proclamations of executives or managers, especially if the workers consider management to be out of touch with their day-to-day experiences. However, employees will respond more positively to setting their own goals. Give them the autonomy to do this and encourage them to make it a personal aim to go home each day without injury.

Invest in Motivation, not Incentives: Even the most creative incentive program won’t get you the results you want: greater worker safety and less lost time due to injury. Safety incentive programs take money out of your company’s bottom-line without a significant or sustainable return on your investment. So instead make motivation a priority for executives, managers, and supervisors. Get them to commit to investing their time and effort to improving their safety and encourage workers to do the same. That way, each individual becomes responsible, not only for their own safety, but also for that of everyone in the organization.

Read other articles and learn more about Carl and Deb Potter.

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