One of the great debates in workplace safety today is the role of incentives. Two philosophies seem to exist. One says that workers will not work safe unless we give them incentives to do so. The other says that incentives should not be required for workers to do their jobs without injury.

Interestingly, safety and operational supervisors, managers, and directors who are working hard to find a way to focus employees on reducing injuries fuel the debate.

The Problem with Most Incentive Programs

The biggest problem with safety incentive programs is that they do not work the way people expect them to. Programs that reward employees with monetary or tangible rewards for an expected level of performance can be challenging when it comes to safety. The reason is this: They tend to cause under-reporting, particularly when the performance is related to lagging indicators like reduced incidents or severity rates. Managers and employees alike confirm this, no matter the industry.

People tend to focus on the reward rather than the outcome of going home every day without an injury. Under-reporting causes information to be buried, which can lead to dangerous behaviors or hazardous situations not being properly addressed.

Sure, there are examples of how incentive programs have helped organizations turn their safety performance from negative to positive. This may be the case for the short term, but over a period of time, safety incentive programs can become:

  • Ineffective – They lose their appeal to employees and it becomes too much work to keep up with the required paperwork.
  • Entitlements – Employees come to expect the incentive no matter what the outcomes are, particularly when monetary rewards are involved.
  • Routine – When the program remains the same year after year, people don’t really pay attention to the expectations and the rewards.
  • Punitive – When group rewards are part of the program, employees can be very punitive to one another when an incident occurs that “messes up” the reward.
  • Irrelevant – Often employees do not see why their company leaders think they have to pay them to work safe. After all, isn’t safe work behavior part of the job?

Think about other problems you’ve seen in your own company. What’s going on with your incentive program if you have one? It may be time to consider a different approach.

Recognition over Rewards

Because safety incentive programs can become routine, ineffective and irrelevant with the passing of time, consider that there has to be a better way.

Companies that train and encourage leaders to recognize safe behavior and positive outcomes have excellent safety cultures. Rather than the prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach found in some safety incentive programs, recognition is much more personal.

Leaders who are deeply involved in the safety management process can have the most positive influence above and beyond any other factor. Recognition goes a long way to motivate workers.

Five Great Alternatives to Incentives

Rather than try to “buy” your employees’ commitment to safety with a safety incentive program, consider these techniques to engage everyone to take personal responsibility for safety:

Make safety a core value. Safety needs to be as important to your organization as production and profits. 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.

Commit management to worker safety. When executives, managers and supervisors actively are 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 actively participating in safety meetings.

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. And find out what motivates them to work safe.

Set high expectations for safe behavior. Research shows that employees usually will work hard to meet their managers’ and supervisors’ expectations. Clearly state expectations that everyone will follow safety procedures and wear appropriate personal protective equipment. Managers and supervisors also should expect employees to identify, control and report all hazards found in the workplace.

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

Even the most creative incentive program won’t get you the result you want: a workplace where nobody gets hurt. Safety incentive programs can take money out of your company’s bottom-line without a significant or sustainable return on your investment.

Instead of focusing on an incentive program, 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. Recognize their safety accomplishments. That way, each individual becomes responsible, not only for his or her own safety, but also for that of everyone in the organization. That way, more people will go home every day without injury.

Carl Potter, CSP, CMC, and Deb Potter, PhD, CMC, work with organizations that want to create an environment where nobody gets hurt. As advocates of a zero-injury workplace, they are speakers, authors and consultants to industry. The Potters can be reached at Potter and Associates International Inc. at (800) 259-6209 or http://www.SimplySeamlessSafety.com.