Building a Culture of Safety

Gift card safety incentive programs are most effective when employees are incentivized based upon both lagging and leading metrics.

Positive changes in safety habits are encouraged and accomplished by consistent recognition. Safety incentive programs ultimately save the company money, but they also can foster teamwork, lead to mutual respect between management and employees, and improve communication -- in addition to helping to reduce your company's health care costs and the time loss that comes with injury and disability. Rewarding safe work habits with an incentives program indicates that it has value to the organization and encourages your people to stay safe on the job.

A study on the effectiveness of safety incentive programs conducted by the Society of Incentive and Travel Executives (SITE) Foundation found that safety incentives work extremely well. According to the study's findings, only eight percent of the workers surveyed would have achieved their goals without an incentive program.1 Further, the study found that tangible incentives (such as gift cards) increased work performance by an average of 22 percent.

Indeed, leading companies such as Marriott Hotels, Frito Lay, Hamilton Beach, Kraft Foods, Exxon, and the U.S. Postal Service have implemented safety incentive programs. Forward-thinking firms are adopting safety incentive programs for two simple reasons: They work, and they benefit the bottom line. For example, a major Department of Defense contractor decreased accidents by more than 55 percent for a savings of $1.6 million annually.2

Heartland Foods, a Minnesota turkey processor, sought to decrease the number of its workers receiving worker's compensation. Although management initially was concerned that a safety incentive program could lead workers to under-report injuries -- small injuries can quickly become infected and increase in severity in the turkey processing industry -- it found that a multifaceted safety incentive program would enable the company to incentivize employees effectively. Through the program, Heartland went from 285 lost-time injuries to 14 in only 18 months. The program also has resulted in more than 200 employee reports on unsafe conditions that brought about proactive corrective actions.3

Cash vs. Gift Cards for Incentive Use
Not all safety incentive programs are created equal. Studies have found that when cash is used as an incentive, it is often spent on everyday expenses (e.g., bill paying, paying for a tank of gas). As a result, cash recipients are less likely to experience a cash reward as a "special occasion" or to associate the reward with a sense of accomplishment.

However, gift cards have the effect of encouraging recipients to enjoy a "special occasion" (e.g., purchasing a long-desired item).4 In comparison to other types of incentives, gift cards "will appeal to everybody in your company, regardless of their interests."5 The broad appeal and special occasion status of gift cards leaves a lasting impression and serves to distinguish a gift card incentive as a special reward rather than as a presumed benefit.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls and Building a Culture of Safety
Smart incentive programs reward both lagging and leading safety metrics.6 Lagging safety metrics detail past performance, such as the rate of workplace incidents. For example, employees would be rewarded for:

  • No accidents
  • No incidents of any kind (e.g., property damage)
  • No environmental incidents (e.g., spills, etc.)

Leading metrics detail proactive or precautionary safety measures (e.g., safety training attendance, employee reports on risk factors). These proactive measures create a safety-conscious culture and lead to savings down the road. For example, employees should be rewarded for:7

  • Reporting injuries immediately, no matter how minor
  • Using safe procedures and practices
  • Complying with all safety rules
  • Warning co-workers about safety issues, hazards, or dangerous situations
  • Submitting safety suggestions
  • Participating on safety committees or teams

Gift card safety incentive programs are most effective when employees are incentivized based upon both types of metrics. This balanced approach encourages an overall culture of safety, ensuring that an incentive program does not lead to unintended results, such as underreporting of workplace incidents, while still providing feedback on outcomes such as incident rates. Both OSHA and the National Safety Council promote smart incentive programs.8

Designing an Effective Safety Incentive Program
There are six common steps to effective safety incentive programs:9,10

1. Decide your objective. There must be a firm sense of what the safety incentive program will accomplish.
2. Target your participants. Different types of work will require different types of incentive programs. An effective incentive program should reflect the diversity of safety issues present in a workplace.
3. Find a focus. Having a central theme reminds participants of the goal that management wants its employees to achieve.
4. Select appropriate prizes with increasing value. The prizes should be meaningful and should reflect the hoped-for sense of accomplishment provided to successful program participants.
5. Establish duration. Using intermittent incentive programs maintains employee interest and allows the incentive program to emphasize various safety issues. Though intermittent, safety programs may be long-term or short-term.
6. Communicate the goal. The program should stress upper management’s commitment to safety and convey enthusiasm for the program. The program also should work to provide significant recognition to safety-oriented individuals. The safety incentive plan should communicate to workers that the company believes that safety and health are important, that workers understand how to achieve the desired results, and that regular performance monitoring is provided.

Using these six proven steps to design an effective safety incentive program can "turn good safety management into spectacular safety management," leading to significant cost savings.11

Each of these six steps is critical in implementing a successful safety incentive program, but making sure you find a reward that delights every unique individual is even more important.

1. Smith, S. "Safety Incentives: It's Not Just a Breakfast Anymore." EHS Today. June 17, 2002.
2. Ibid.
3. Sims, B. "How Successful Safety Incentive Programs Reduce Injuries Without Injury Hiding." March 2012.
4. "Employee Incentive Programs Encourage On-the-Job Safety." Genins.
5. Smith, E. "Facility Safety Incentive Gift Ideas." Houston Chronicle.
6. Atkinson, W. "Safety Incentive Programs: What Works?" EHS Today. August 2004.
7. Dandes, R. "Health, Well-Being Come First: Effective Safety Incentive Programs Can Help Cut Spending." Premium Incentive Products. September 2010.
8. Doyle, A. "Inside Safety Incentive Programs." Incentive Magazine. January 2013.
9. "Michigan Municipal Workers' Compensation Fund - Safety and Health Resource Manual." Michigan Municipal League.
10. "Cost Benefit Analysis of Safety Incentive Programs - Industrial Code Rule 60." New York State Department of Labor,
11. Sims, B. Op. cit.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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