The Two Keys to Safety

(Hint: They're not what you think.)

THE next time you are wrestling with the issue of safety, trying to figure out what you can do to get your employees to do their jobs more carefully and more safely, give yourself a two-question test:

Question #1: What is the one thing that every survey tells us keeps employees happier, more loyal, and more satisfied with the job they have? The answer is appreciation. When employees feel that they are appreciated, it outweighs even monetary considerations for job satisfaction.

We tend to think of appreciation in the executive offices or at any management level, but what about your employees who perform the most physically demanding jobs? How do you demonstrate to them that you appreciate they have difficult jobs and also that you appreciate them for doing those jobs safely? It is a problem that is exacerbated when the primary language of the workforce is not English, increasingly the case in many parts of the country.

Question #2: Who is your strongest ally in encouraging safe behavior? The answer to this one is your employees, of course. Only when they carry the message that safe behavior is important to them will you achieve a safe workplace. We call that accountability.

When you combine employee appreciation with employee accountability, you will have fewer accidents, fewer claims, and a safer, healthier company. The one proven way to do that is by implementing a great safety incentive program.

How They Work Together
The most successful safety incentive programs are built on a foundation of appreciation and accountability, the same two qualities that great companies spend a fortune trying to create.

Employees engaged in labor intensive jobs, whether they are in manufacturing, warehouse, housekeeping, or a host of other physically demanding occupations, are challenged to make good decisions every day. Do they reach around the machine guard, or do they go to the trouble of stopping the machine to correct a jam? Do they observe the speed limit on the forklift, even though there doesn't seem to be anyone around? Is it worth the trouble of putting a towel down to clean the tub when they are pretty sure they won't slip? How do you motivate your employees to make the right--the safe--decision every time, even when it means they will have to go to greater effort or it will take them longer?

Think of your own job and how many times you are required to do more than the minimum, perhaps to stay late to finish a project, to rewrite a memo from your boss that doesn't sound right, or to make a report look great rather than just acceptable. Think how you feel when your extra effort is recognized and your boss compliments you on your work. That is appreciation, and it makes all of us tick. It makes all of us want to continue to provide excellent work. So, now, think about your employees in the plant. What recognition does the employee receive who takes the time to stop the machine or to always observe your safety rules?

A safety incentive program provides a company the opportunity to give recognition to every worker and show him appreciation for doing the right thing--performing his job safely and by the book.

Every month, you can call attention to individuals who have made contributions, to departments that are performing well, and to the company's overall safety record. In order to do that, your safety awards meeting must come alive. It must be interactive, with recognition and applause. Don't be afraid to make it fun and entertaining. Safety is serious, but the celebration of a safe month or a safe quarter doesn't have to be. Every meeting is a chance to tell your employees you appreciate the fact they have demanding jobs, and you appreciate they are doing them safely. That's why you have the program.

To make your safety incentive program motivational, you must have awards that motivate. Let's be honest: Small tokens such as hats and T-shirts don't motivate anyone with the possible exception of your best employees--and it is the not-so-great employees that you have to get to. It is not mandatory to provide cash, although it is the preferred award, but it is mandatory to provide awards that people want. Our rule is to provide significant awards to a small number of people every month. Winning the top award for safety ought to be meaningful, so that every employee at the meeting wishes he had won and wants another chance next month. That's the motivation that you are trying to establish.

Appreciation is not as effective if there is a lack of accountability. If all we receive is praise, how do we measure its sincerity? If we are going to recognize an employee for making the right decision, we also have to recognize the employee who makes a decision to perform his job unsafely or dishonestly.

Accountability comes from discussing the injuries every month and asking the group how they could have been avoided. Carelessness and fraud have no hiding place when injuries are discussed in an open forum. No accusations, no recriminations, no putting the employee in front of the group. Instead, you are able to lead a discussion of the accident and how it could have been prevented with the goal of teaching in the best possible environment, and with everyone's attention. This kind of accountability makes your employees part of the safety culture. If their awards are dependent on their safety performance, then you have given everyone a reason to look out for one another's welfare and to encourage safe behavior. Watch your careless accidents go down and your fraudulent claims virtually disappear.

Useful Ground Rules
Here are some ground rules to making your safety incentive program effective:

  • Don't rely on games or gimmicks. Bingo was a short-term solution 20 years ago but has nothing to do with a real safety culture.
  • Give fewer awards, but make them meaningful. Pizza doesn't change behavior.
  • Make your meetings an event! Make them fun and memorable so your employees look forward to them. Morale plays a big role in safety.
  • Balance the appreciation with accountability. Before any award is made, discuss every injury and how it could have been prevented. This is the right forum to do that.
  • Be visible. Take and post pictures, and have a place to list the winners' names every month.

One more suggestion: Don't be afraid to make small changes to your program. Keep it interesting and fresh. Add prizes if you prefer cash as your main incentive, or add cash if you like prizes. Change shows you are involved and the program is important, not just a gimmick to reduce claims. If you keep the principles of appreciation and accountability in mind, you will have the best possible guide to delivering a meaningful, positive, and effective safety incentive program.

This article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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