Are safety incentives and awards an effective way to improve worker safety? This is a regular topic of discussion among safety professionals and managers. The consensus for many is that since workers do not get hurt on purpose, incentives for safety really will not help.

Since workers are already trying to avoid injury, what difference will an incentive make? It makes a great deal of difference.

There have been some studies done on safety rewards and the reduction of accidents. One extensive study conducted by the Society of Incentive and Travel Executives Foundation revealed some positive insight into how rewards improve safety. One of their key findings was that only 8% of workers surveyed would have achieved their goals without an incentive program.

Their report went on to state that incentives increase work performance by an average of 22%. This was published in EHS Today. Their study effectively countered the idea that incentives only serve to encourage employees to not report accidents.

If I asked your workers how important is safety where you work, what would they say? Would they say it was the most important thing? Would they say management cares about safety? Workers know what is important to management. They know that managers invest time and money in what is important. If worker safety is not promoted in a proactive manner, it will be difficult to get workers to invest effort in working safe.

Do you celebrate worker safety milestones? This is a set period of time without an accident in which the employee knows the company will reward him or her. If the answer is no, you may be missing out on an opportunity to support and reinforce safety behavior. If your answer is yes, then you are already seeing how important celebrating safety is. Honestly, we only celebrate and reward what is important and employee behavior will reflect this.

Incentives Alone Won’t Work

Incentives should be viewed as a way to celebrate and reinforce safety behavior. It alone will not keep workers safe, and incentives will not make up for the lack of establishing a safety work culture.

A "Work Culture" can be defined as the beliefs, values and actions that are normal and characteristic of the work environment. If safety is not a foundation concept for the work culture, incentives, most likely, will not help. Once a safety culture is established, incentives and celebrations for safety become a key component.

The relationship with rewards and safety culture is sort of like frosting and cake. Think of the safety culture as the cake and the rewards and incentives as the frosting. You need the cake first, but without the frosting, you notice that something is missing and so will everyone else.

To achieve safety milestones and not celebrate goes against human nature. We celebrate and recognize what is important. If we have a safety culture and do not celebrate safety wins, the culture will not last.

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Entitlement is a powerful word. Good or bad, right or wrong, we feel entitled to rewards and recognition for noteworthy events and accomplishments. When we feel entitled to something and it is denied us, we notice. We are raised celebrating milestones and events in our lives.

If you want to know how strong feelings of entitlement can be, simply ignore your spouse’s next birthdays or your wedding anniversary. I’m betting they notice. If some event passes without any recognition, the message is that it was insignificant or that we just don’t care.

Smart managers use entitlement to reinforce safety behavior. This tells employees that safety is valued and their safety efforts are noticed and appreciated. This is important because unsafe acts often provide instantaneous reward.

The Reward Unsafe Acts Provide

The issue is not that people at work want to take risks, but that risks can provide quick rewards. Doing something the safe way often requires extra time and effort. Goring to get the right tools, using lockout/tag-out or shutting down equipment all require time and effort.

When employees ignore safety and take a risk, accomplishing their goal without injury or mishap, they are rewarded by getting work done. They took a shortcut. They cheated safety and got away with it. This is how unsafe acts become normalized.

Safety requires extra effort. Why give the effort if it is not noticed or valued? If the only motivation is to "get the work done" risks will be taken often. Accidents and near misses will occur as a result. This is more common than you may think. The greatest motivation is often to protect production numbers, lower scrap rates and down time. Working with safety rules can hinder this.

We need balance. If working without safety can provide the reward of getting work done quickly, we need to motivate employees to take the extra effort safety requires. Safety requires extra effort and management needs to reward this behavior. Employees know that management spends money and time on what they value. No recognition for safety means safety is not valued.

Reinforcing Safety Behavior

A constant trait of most societies is that we reinforce positive behavior. We reward, recognize milestones and noteworthy events. When employees are not rewarded for safety, the message is clear that safety is not valued.

If safety is valued, employees will feel entitled to some form of recognition for the extra effort safety requires. This is a golden opportunity to reinforce safety and acknowledge the workers safe work practices. An employee’s feelings of entitlement for working safely is the very thing management should want to reinforce. Management has an opportunity to reinforce employee’s safe work habits.

There is no middle or neutral ground with regards to recognizing worker safety. Management will be seen as caring or uncaring. If they care, employees will continue to care. Strong companies recognize that their employees are their greatest assets. Reward and recognition of safety is vital for protecting the workforce.

How to Use Incentives to Drive Safety

First and foremost is establishing a work culture that values safety. Incentives or rewards are a means of celebrating success. It is the icing on the cake. Why wouldn’t we want to celebrate safety successes?

Keep safety goals attainable. Lots of short, small wins can lead to big wins. I have seen departments set monthly safety goals and celebrate with cake or donuts. I saw how those small celebrations took one department in a large factory from the worst at safety to the best. They went from the highest accident rate in the factory to the lowest. After a year of this, they presented all department members with a small gift, to thank them for their accomplishment. They were so proud of what they accomplished. Set clear safety goals and "gamify" achieving them. Keep it fun and creative.

Use the incentives to reinforce behavior and celebrate accomplishments. You don’t want to discourage employees from turning in accidents. It is about recognition and saying we noticed, "keep up the good work."

Don’t reward only based on accident rates or lagging indicators. Look for ways to reward safety behavior. I have seen companies give safety t-shirts to employees that identified and helped address unsafe conditions or behaviors. As these efforts went up, accidents went down. Ask employees to help with the reward system. Safety programs employees help create will have the most buy-in and support.

As employees, we rarely feel over-appreciated. Show your employees you appreciate their safety efforts. Safety requires extra time and effort, and if you don’t value it, neither will they.

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