The process of putting a new safety incentive program into place is at least intricate. If you do not have a process in mind for completing the journey, it can be practically impossible.

The Winding Staircase to Setting Up a Safety Incentive Program

There are many steps in implementing one for the workplace. Sometimes the last step is the hardest.

The process of putting a new safety incentive program into place is at least intricate; if you don't have a process in mind, it can be practically impossible. Implementation mistakes not only can diminish the effectiveness of a safety incentive program, they also can keep the program from even getting off the ground. I have seen safety incentive programs with the purest and loftiest of goals grind to a halt before they ever start. In one instance, it was because of an argument over whether gift cards, brand-name merchandise, or a company-sponsored picnic was the best reward. Another well-meaning group could not get past the discussion of whether an end-of-year sweepstakes drawing for a truck was better than a safety bingo card game.

What follows is an overview of the process steps, from recognizing the need for a safety incentive program through to getting a go-ahead from the executive suite to implement the design.

Getting Started
At a recent ASSE PDC, Bruce Wilkinson, CSP, said, "Safety is not about protecting yourself from something—it's about protecting yourself for someone." I agree this is the ultimate goal and intention of safety. A safety incentive program is a sophisticated tool to deliver a company and its individual employees to that goal. It can help to motivate individuals, departments, and entire companies toward greater safety by creating a work environment where safety is more actively considered, but to be effective it must also clearly define what the company's goals are and what proactive techniques can be used to achieve those goals. Sometimes not understanding how those techniques work can result in bringing the wrong tool for the job at hand.

Step One is recognizing that Step One is not choosing what reward is going to be used as an incentive. Defining the desired outcome and the specific metrics that will indicate movement toward that outcome must be settled before deciding what is going to be rewarded to participants who achieve those metrics. The safety professional who understands this and resists input from others to look at the "stuff" first has a much greater chance of his program's succeeding. The challenge is to focus on which behaviors and habits can be changed and which best practices can be encouraged. At the same time, the program should encourage only the activities that positively change the overall corporate culture and how the company as a whole views safety. As with any plan, starting with an understanding of where you want to end up often will reveal the steps to take to get there.

Designing the Program: What's the Problem?
While defining the endgame is a crucial first step, clarifying the issues and goals is only the initial phase of designing a program to suit your company's needs. Unlike attendance or referral incentive programs, where the desired outcome is precisely defined, or years-of-service programs that are statements of appreciation for long-term commitment and performance, a safety incentive program seeks to address both highly targeted issues (e.g., preventing motor vehicle accidents) and broader goals, such as encouraging workers to look out for each other and to make safety a part of any process they undertake.

Much as an architect must understand the function and use requirements of a building, designing a safety incentive program requires a clear understanding of what specific results the program is meant to create. Often this is made clearer by a blunt review of failure: Rhe specific areas where safety performance is not being practiced at a satisfactory level as evidenced by accidents, occurrence of hazards that might have been prevented, and legal issues arising from injuries or procedural errors.

Looking at OSHA reports, workers' comp events, and HR records can be helpful, but asking your employees is one of the best sources for understanding what the program can address. Almost any time there is a major safety issue, the line-level employees are aware of what's going on -- and more often than not, what might fix it. If employees believe there is not an open forum to discuss these issues, a confidential questionnaire that is mailed directly to your program designer may get you the information you need.

From all of this input, you next want to define the metrics, which are tasks, actions, or achievements that are consistent with correcting the things you have discovered that are keeping you from achieving your safety goals. Examples of common safety metrics are:

  • Reporting a near miss
  • Identifying a potential hazard, along with a corrective recommendation
  • Volunteering to present or lead a part of a safety meeting
  • Participating in a drill
  • Completing an OSHA or other safety leadership course
  • Proactively supporting safety in the workplace through consistent use of best practices

You don't have to figure it all out from scratch. While it is possible to do this entire exercise internally, you may find it is an advantage to have an incentive professional assist. Engaging an experienced consultant is not saying you don't understand safety; rather, it's acknowledging you are sophisticated enough to understand that for some tasks, you need the right person to do the right job.

Your company probably has an air conditioning professional to keep the office HVAC humming, an elevator professional who makes sure that when you press "1" you end up on the first floor (at the right speed), and an accounting professional to make sure your books are set up correctly. Just as the AC person understands compression, fluid dynamics, static air pressure issues, electronics, and electrical theory, it's not a bad idea to have someone who understands the full depth and breadth of issues, strategies, and regulatory policies relating to incentive programs in general and safety incentive programs specifically.

Thinking of an incentive professional as the guy who can help you with IRS rules and OSHA regulations relating to safety incentives is accurate, but not complete. Have you ever been convinced the air handler was out on your central air conditioner, only to find out the issue actually was in the thermostat on the wall? An incentive professional sometimes can help you identify root motivational and performance issues you didn’t even suspect were there.

Choosing the Reward that Will Deliver Results
Whether you use a consultant or draw on your own personal experience, once you understand where you want to go with the incentive program in terms of results, the next step is to lay out how you're going to get there. This is the point where it is a good idea to consider what sort of award delivery structure will work best for your goals. In other words, what reward is going to get my employees to best participate in the program?

I tell clients that my job as a safety incentive consultant is to design programs that get participants to do the right thing for the wrong reason. It's fine with me for someone to be a little more careful because they want a new tool set or iPod. Always remember that safety is a value, not a priority. A person's values change based on experiencing results that are then adopted as truths. Getting the participants to achieve the metrics that define your goal is the first step; getting them to notice the truth that being safer makes for a happier workplace comes later, and with it the shift in the individuals and the company culture changes how they value and actively pursue safety goals.

Here's an example of a program that worked (and then didn't):

As part of a narrowly focused program to encourage real-time safety awareness, one major company gave safety managers a number of $20 gas debit cards. They were handed out on the spot whenever managers "caught someone being safe." When the program was pronounced a success and implemented as a fixed reward structure for all aspects of safety, it not only failed, it created negative results. The problem? All achievements had a single value. Identifying a potential hazard got the same reward as completing an extensive OSHA certification course. Because the card was a "cash equivalent" (used to obtain a necessity the recipient would otherwise pay for out of pocket), the cards were considered compensation rather than an appreciation reward by the recipients and did not leave a lasting positive impression. In the incentive industry this is called trophy value, and it represents the tendency of tangible reward merchandise or experiences to create a recurring positive impression each time the item is viewed or the experience is remembered.

The safety manager in charge of this program found that while this quick delivery system gave an immediate positive reward to the recipient, the card turned into gas and then into exhaust fumes within a few days. The instant gratification that was so successful in cueing employees that they were on the right track did not have the ability to deliver proportional, long-term appreciation and support for behavioral change.

Understanding that the goals of this company were both to produce an immediate awareness of when someone did something right and also to have a long-term, progressive system of nurturing and perpetuating the achievement of program goals led this safety manager to a program that offered point vouchers, which had the same immediate on-the-spot gratification as a gas card. These vouchers were then redeemed by participants online for points that could be "banked" so that they built up to permit a progressively higher quality and value of lifestyle merchandise.

By defining the ultimate set of goals for the safety incentive program, the safety manager was able diagnose why the program he had wasn't working, and instead implement a program designed to achieve all of the program's objectives, rather than haphazardly achieving one priority at the expense of another.

If you take care in laying out the metrics that indicate your team is meeting the program's defined goals, you will then be able to see which reward delivery and type will best serve the achievement of those metrics. As Bruce Wilkinson says, "Change is inevitable—-adaptability is optional." Where a set of strict disciplinary responses can cause employees to change what they do so they don't get caught, a great safety incentive program will inspire the participants to adapt an attitude that both demands and produces safety.

When considering metrics, be sure you understand the difference between performance-based and results-based awards. While that is not the topic of this current discussion, in brief, regulatory agencies such as OSHA are disposed to view performance-based metrics, where an employee does a specific positive act such as agree to serve on a safety committee, in a favorable light. The same regulators are typically not as pleased to see result-based metrics, such as completing a month or quarter without a violation of safety standards, because the agencies view such metrics as tending to discourage employees from properly reporting as legally required, such as injuries or dangerous events.

There are ways to address these concerns with ethical and clearly defined criteria, which some safety professionals pursue because of the experience that one of the clearest and most effective measurements of overall safety is the metric which reflects that everyone is correctly, legally, and aggressively following the safety rules defined in the Standard Operating Procedures.

Once you have defined the goals, metrics, and incentive delivery system, the next specification involves evaluating the value of each metric. In a sweepstakes, some metrics might be worth two or three entries, while others are worth one. In a point program, one metric might earn 100 points while another earns 500. It all depends on the importance you place on the particular metric for achieving the goals of the program, as well as the resistance employees might have to doing whatever is involved in achieving the metric. Remember, this is an incentive program, which is basically the art of converting "can do" into "want to." Some rewards might be dynamic, based on an employee's job requirements. Results-based awards for safety in a refinery might have a lower level of benefit for the office staff, a higher benefit for the operations crew, and still higher for the "highest risk" employees, such as the workers hauling thousands of gallons of gasoline in a truck.

After your program metrics are defined and you have decided on a reward vehicle and structure, you still have a couple of steps to complete the design. The words "We plan to announce this program in December and start it in January" miss a critical step in planning for the program's success, which is how the program is going to be rolled out, promoted, and launched so the participants identify themselves as being actively involved, highly rewarded, and excited about the potential of the program.

This is done with initial sign-up point bonuses, promotional products, a lunch or picnic promoting the project, and printed materials to excite the participants (and often their spouses) about the great benefits the incentive program offers.

Some companies use the "loose slot" marketing approach, having some easy-to-win contests, quizzes, and challenges to put enough points into participants' accounts that they almost immediately can see some award as being within their grasp. This is especially important if you are switching from some other program, particularly with anything that involved cash rewards, which participants often will initially howl about. This is because anything that says cash (as I mentioned before) is almost always interpreted by recipients as being compensation they are entitled to receive; when lost, it’s considered a pay cut. In the industry, this is often referred to as "the storm." Positioning your new reward system so something tangible is almost immediately available is the quickest way to calm the waters that can churn up during a transition.

It would be equally shortsighted not to provide for how your shiny new plan will be administered. Not only are there earned incentives to be accounted for and merchandise or other rewards to be distributed, but also the program needs to be monitored and adjusted constantly.

A safety incentive program is like a plane flying from New York to London that statistically is typically off course more than 90 percent of the time. The trick is to detect the error when you are only slightly off course, then make the necessary correction. This is as critical to the success of a program as any other element; you either need a qualified staff person to monitor the metrics and make the adjustments or to retain an incentive professional to administer the program for you. Either way, plan for how the program administration will be managed up front so you head off the potential problem instead of having to chase it after the fact.

The Sign-Off
Once the plan is settled on and the proposal is written, you still have one more step, and it can be a steep one: Somebody has to approve the budget for the plan. Very often there will be a senior executive, such as the chief financial officer or a board member, who will say something like this:

  • These programs don't work (read: didn't work the last time I saw one implemented).
  • They cost too much (read: they didn't produce the value I expected).
  • OSHA doesn’t like these (read: I read somewhere that these programs can incur fines).
  • No one pays any attention to these (read: a previous program wasn't properly launched).
  • These are more trouble than they're worth (read: I was witness to a program that was implemented without an effective management component).

All of these points are addressable. It is part of your job to anticipate what these questions might be and have the answers either already in the proposal or ready to go when asked. If you've gotten this far on your own, this might be another time to consider talking to an incentive specialist who can support you through this particularly dicey part of the process. If not, hit the Internet, speak to colleagues who have successful programs, and be sure you have the reassuring answers to address the Signing Authority's concerns.

There is an old saying, "Don't bring a knife to a gunfight." While those two objects may seem to be singularly unsafe, the saying still applies here. Understand that a safety incentive program can produce terrific results as long as it is designed and managed properly. A poorly designed incentive program can be as spectacularly unsuccessful as a poorly designed building.

By following the steps of analyzing the issue, defining the goal, identifying the metrics, and planning for success, you can create and implement a program that not only will nurture a safer workplace, but also actually provide a significant return on investment for that reluctant CFO.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Sean Roark, CPIM, is a recognized authority on the topic of Safety Incentive Programs, and a long-time contributor to Occupational Health & Safety magazine, as well as a featured speaker at the National Safety Council and the American Society of Safety Professionals. Sean, who along with his wife Leslie owns Houston-based PromoPros/IncentPros, is a Past President of the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA),, and the current Chair of the IMA Professional Education and Certification Committee.

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