Safety incentive programs can effectively increase workplace safety.

As an EHS pro, you want as safe a workplace as possible. You know too well how easily accidents can happen, but also the difficulties of implementing a sound safety culture.

Health and safety is often seen as burdensome and unnecessary – by both employers and workers. This is where the safety incentive program comes into play.

On paper, it’s a straightforward win-win. Rewarding employees for zero-injuries over a certain time equals a drastic reduction in accidents, right?

If only it were that simple.

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Safety incentive programs are complex. Done right, the rewards can be enormous. Some organizations with a well implemented program report saving millions of US dollars and a dramatic decrease in lost-time injury rates.

On the other hand, a poorly structured program can wreak havoc.

This article will include:

  • The history safety incentive programs
  • Behavior based vs rates based
  • Incentive ideas
  • Do safety incentive programs work?
  • How to create your own safety incentive program

Let’s get started!

The history of safety incentive programs

In short, a safety incentive program rewards workers for safe behaviour; may that be pizza parties, a cash prize or heading home an hour early on Fridays.

These ‘prizes’ tap into workers’ emotional side, and attempts to eliminate human error.

When incentive programs gained popularity in the 70s, the ultimate goal was 365 days injury free.

In his account of safety incentive programs at Newfoundland Power, a Canadian electricity company, Wayne G. Pardy writes:

“We were doing what we felt was right, based on the information which we had available at that time. Hindsight is a wonderful thing; however, if we knew then what we know now, the effort perhaps would have looked much different.”

Now, 40 years later, we know the negative results of such rates based programs: a cover-up culture.

Safety incentive programs judging workplace safety just by the number of accidents can lead to un- and under-reported injuries.

Especially when teams are rewarded. The peer pressure racks up, meaning employees reluctantly report injuries. No-one wants the blame for an entire team losing a generous cash bonus.

Nevertheless, while some companies still engage in rates based programs, there is another method.

Behavior-based vs rates-based

We asked the Reddit safety community for their experiences using safety incentive programs for company safety. One user replied:

“I know of a company where a small gift certificate was given to every employee if no injuries were reported for the month. Any injury would be anything as slight as a cut that required a band aid. There were over 100 employees, so an injury free month was about three per year."

“Some small injuries, like cuts and bruises, went unreported because the injured didn’t want to be the person to ruin the incentive for the month. I’m sure reduced reporting was part of the overall trend for lower injury rates but I don’t know how much.”

However, not all safety incentive programs are rates based. There are two sides to the same coin.

The other method is behavior based: rewarding employees for engaging in EHS management and reporting hazards and near misses.

Arguably, this type of safety incentive program is more effective. It encourages and rewards employees for reporting incidents, therefore, accident under-reporting is much less likely.

OSHA and safety incentive programs

In 2016, OSHA published a clarification of their stance on safety incentive programs.

While OSHA does not prohibit safety incentive programs, the 2016 amendment to the clause prohibited ‘employers from retaliating against employees for reporting work-related injuries and illnesses’.

OSHA allows both types of program, but empathizes that rates based programs must not discourage workers from reporting.

For example, miss a safety target and the employer withdraws the prize in ‘retaliation’. OSHA rules are violated if the employer did not ‘implement adequate precautions’ to encourage workers to report hazards and injuries.

In summary, to avoid the nasty side-effects of a rates-based program, OSHA recommends implementing a program rewarding workers for reporting unsafe conditions.

Incentive ideas

Now is a good time to point out that safety incentive programs should never be used in place of a comprehensive work safety program. Rather, a safety incentive program should complement a comprehensive company safety program.

Nevertheless, a successful program needs a decent incentive.

Let’s look to the HSE for effective incentive ideas:

  • One off prize for individuals or groups
  • Prize draw for workers who observed safe behaviour
  • Moral incentive - £1 goes to charity for every safety observation, training and event attendance
  • Leave early on a Friday
  • Instant rewards – worker given a small prize immediately for their safe behaviour
  • Given a certificate

Moreover, there are 10 categories of incentive:

  1. Recognition
  2. Time off
  3. Stock ownership
  4. Special assignments
  5. Advancement
  6. Increased autonomy
  7. Training and education
  8. Social gatherings
  9. Prizes
  10. Money

As you can see, there’s a range to choose from. Nevertheless, research shows that the most efficient incentives have a higher personal than monetary value. For example, peer recognition through obtaining a certificate or getting placed on the ‘wall of fame’.

Another Reddit safety community user wrote:

“I work for a fairly large general contractor (top 10 in USA) and we have an incentive program focussing on leading indicators: good behaviour, all paperwork completed and good audit scores. At the end of the month, the top crews get a reward of lunch, a picture on the ‘wall of fame’ in the field office and a certificate. It becomes a competition between crew on who follows the rules best. And at the end of it all, it’s a safer job for a lunch and a few pieces of paper.”

So, now we know the incentives. But do safety incentive programs actually work?

Do safety incentive programs work?

Looking at statistics only, rates based safety incentive programs appear to work.

One study found that companies with a safety incentive program experienced a 44.16% reduction in the mean lost-time workday injury rate between 1999 and 2001.

On the other hand, companies without a safety incentive program had an 41.84% increase in the mean lost-time workday injury rate between 1999 and 2001.

Of course, injury statistics alone are not a true representation. As mentioned earlier, poorly designed programs can cause under-reporting.

In 2010, a report found that 75% of US manufacturers utilized safety incentive programs that may impinge on workers’ safety reporting.

After this report's release, OSHA became massively concerned with under-reporting. They then stated in a memo: “If workers do not feel free to report injuries and illnesses, the entire workforce is put at risk.”

Yet, under-reporting is not the sole problem. The following issues often also occur:

  • A ‘Band-Aid’ safety approach
  • Reward entitlement
  • ROI difficulties
  • Workers who take safety seriously and those who don’t are rewarded the same

Another Reddit user replied:

"Choose the right reward, and incentive programs can be very effective in improving safety culture. Choose poorly and they will do the opposite.

For example, reward for near miss reporting - especially those with high potential consequence. This drives improvement in hazard spotting and reporting. Rewarding zero injuries creates a culture of hiding and under-reporting incidents.

I also recommend setting good general targets for positive safety behaviours - so everyone is expected to do something (or perhaps miss out on something i.e. reward withheld) and then additionally reward exceptional performance."

In the Psychology of Safety by E. Scott Geller, he suggests safety incentive programs’ focal point should be the ‘process’ rather than the outcome.

Now, the evidence stacks up for a behaviour-based program.

How to create your own safety incentive program

Using the information from this article, you can begin building your own safety incentive program.

In brief:

  • Employee recognition incentives are more desirable than monetary incentives
  • A poorly designed program will encourage under-reporting, and may increase accident risk
  • Employers who do not encourage reporting and retaliate against missed targets violate OSHA rules

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Keep reading: The Danger of Routine and Complacency in the Workplace

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A University of the West of Scotland graduate with a BA in Journalism, Holly joined the marketing department in 2018 and brings a wide range of experience to the team. Outside of business, Holly enjoys cycling, cooking and yoga. As the Digital Marketing Executive, Holly coordinates Pro-Sapien's social outreach and blog content, and can be reached at holly.callender@pro-sapien.com.