New Frontiers for Safety Incentives

For years, many safety professionals openly opposed the use of safety incentive programs. This is changing.

It's clear that U.S. safety managers understand cash is a bad motivator of safer behaviors and performance on the job. Nine out of 10 potential customers he sees at industry trade shows accept that statement as a given, said Brian Galonek, CPIM, president of All Star Incentive Marketing of Fiskdale, Mass. Yet the fight for his company and others in the incentive industry is far from won, he said.

"I would say that the frontier for us now, the challenge we have: This is not your grandfather's incentive program any more," said Galonek. He said older programs, older formats that do not work well and persuade people to hide injuries or accidents, remain available. They might be based on one big-ticket giveaway — a single prize that will be awarded to one recipient from an entire shift.

"The three main things I always hit on are these: The element of chance is a terrible idea in a program, where you throw in all the names and pick one name out of a hat," he explained. "It's still only one person out of 50 or 500, and the other 499 never thought they had a chance anyway, so there's no incentive there. Stop using these big-ticket awards and just giving them to one person, like a trip to Hawaii. Stop using cash as the award itself. The third one is awarding in groups. As I've told people over and over again, if I'm being rewarded for my individual behavior and I run a forklift into a wall, I am not going to hide that and risk losing my job. I am being rewarded for my own behavior. If I report that and 300 guys on my shift won't get their safety points for that month or won't get their gift card, I will hide it. I'm much more likely to hide it. I'm talking about being the jerk in the lunchroom, ostracized, what have you. So now there's more of a disincentive to tell my manager that I put a dent in the forklift."

Galonek said about 50 percent of people he speaks with at trade shows think all three of those practices are fine, and many see no problem with waiting a long time to award the incentive. "An incentive program works because there's action-reaction. When you do something, I reward you for it. On the shop floor if possible, or as quickly as possible," he said. "If you have a completely great safety year and you were safest in April, and all you get is a chance to win an ATV and that chance comes in January, and then you don't win? That's not a safety incentive program, even if the safety manager thinks, 'The guys love it. They just love it.'"

Such programs are not based on communication and engagement, he maintained. "Those programs are based on whether you remember enough that you might win an ATV in 10 months if you stay safe on the job. That's not how human nature works." Workers from Gen X and Gen Y expect communication; if you reward them 10 months later for something they've done now, that's of no value, Galonek said.

Managers of the old school looked to the older methods, thinking that incentives are negative motivators because they encourage hiding of injuries, agreed Heidi Chatfield, the company's vice president of marketing and operations. The company is making headway with a newer crop of managers, she said, explaining that peers in various industries are now sharing a consistent message about how properly designed incentives only enhance a safety program.

"I always talk about an OSHA poster hanging on a wall," Galonek said. "That's not a safety program. What we try to get people to do is to put a little pizzazz, a little marketing into their safety message. It's extremely important…to think about how to spruce up that message. And not just the message, but also what flies underneath that message, which speaks to manager training and what you do to make sure people are singing off the same song card."

Industry Opposition Wanes

For years, many safety professionals openly opposed the use of safety incentive programs. This, too, is changing, Galonek said.

He cited an All Star program within the past year that was successful and loved by the customer, yet it was halted because turnover issues with the customer's middle managers caused its facilities to be managed poorly, and the All Star program wasn't being given the attention it required, Galonek said he was told.

That was frustrating, he admitted. "It's good to leave on good terms, but to say, 'We just clearly have a management training issue we have to resolve before we can expect this program to work for us.' …" "We do a lot of staying in touch with people," he added. "When they say, 'The budgets are frozen, we should talk in October,' that's what we do. So there's a lot of kicking the can down the road."

Customers are not saying the programs don't work, but some potential customers are saying they can't aff ord them at this time, he said.

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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