In Defense of Incentives & Recognition

These programs succeed when they receive adequate funding and are soundly designed.

CRITICS of safety incentive programs often fall prey to a simple error in logic: They argue that because such programs do not always work, then they never work. If that is true, then the following statements must also be true:

  • Some people who buy personal computers fail to use them properly and thus achieve no productivity gains. Therefore, all use of personal computers is ineffective.
  • Some people die prematurely from cancer even after receiving chemotherapy treatment. Therefore, all chemotherapy is ineffective.
  • Some behavior-based safety observation programs produce no real injury reduction. Therefore, all such programs are failures.

No doubt you can think of other examples that illustrate this "all or nothing" error in logic. To get past this error when thinking about safety incentive programs, we must look more closely at why some programs fail. With that understanding, we can then design programs that succeed.

Budgeting for Effective Incentives
At the National Safety Congress in September 2001 in Atlanta, Jim Lowe, a union safety representative, spoke against incentive programs. To support his case, he cited research indicating incentives have little or no effect on the results of weight loss and smoking cessation programs. There's an obvious question here that Lowe failed to answer during his remarks: How big was the incentive?

If the incentive to meet a weight loss goal of 10 pounds is only 25 cents, then we can rightly expect a high failure rate. But if we offer an incentive of $1,000,000 to each person who loses 10 pounds, we can easily expect a rate of success that approaches 100 percent.

This point seems obvious. Yet one of the most common problems with incentive programs is that they are under-budgeted. Can any manager design an incentive program with a cost of $3 per person per year and reasonably expect a behavior change? I've seen it happen, but it is rare.

So, the "failures" that Lowe cites are not a reason to ban all safety incentive programs. Instead, we must remember that some programs fail because of the actions of inexperienced budget planners, who may expect something for nothing.

Preventing Injury Hiding
Another reason Lowe speaks out against incentive programs is that such programs create an environment where employees fear losing incentives. In turn, this fear leads employees to hide injuries and fail to report them.

Unfortunately, this line of reasoning takes us straight into another gap in logic. The argument rests on two statements that clearly contradict each other:

  • Incentives are ineffective because they have little power to affect behavior.
  • Incentives are so powerful that they cause injury hiding.

In short, incentives either work or they do not work. But they cannot both succeed and fail at the same time.

Drawing on his own experience in factory work, Lowe told a story about a fellow employee. This man used a drill bit that shattered and embedded in his chest. Instead of reporting the incident, the employee got medical treatment, came back to work, and then hid the injury. He did not want to ruin the chances of winning a "million-man hour award" for his co-workers.

Lowe's story makes a point that I agree with: Incentives tied purely to hours worked without injuries can lead to injury hiding. To prevent this problem, you can design an incentive program based on upstream, proactive behaviors instead of trailing, downstream measurements such as time worked.

We have found it more effective to create recognition programs that are proactive and behavior-based, focusing not only on safety results but on safety process improvements. This is precisely where good incentive program design is critical.

Summing Up
The bottom line is that safety incentive programs require work and management. Some companies fail to implement incentive programs properly, so they get poor results. Even worse, they can get an OSHA fine for injury hiding. On the other hand, many companies implement safety incentive programs correctly and manage them well, receiving a good return on investment.

An incentive program is like a scalpel: In the hand of a terrorist, it can bring down an airplane, but in the hands of a surgeon it can save a life. Likewise, in the hands of inexperienced planners, an incentive program can produce injury hiding and other negative results. Yet an effectively designed program can contribute to a safer workplace, year after year.

This article originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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