Effective Safety Recognition Programs: The Do's and Don'ts

Supervisors should seek out opportunities to catch employees working safely, using the right safety equipment and clothing, and following safe work practices.

It's all too easy to launch a fun, exciting employee safety reward program. Put up lots of colorful safety theme posters, hand out theme buttons, kick it off with a pizza lunch, and announce some great prizes/rewards for achieving safety goals.

While safety recognition programs can be highly effective at changing or reinforcing employee safety behavior, to ensure real success in your overall program, there are a number of critical safety program components that must be in place first. Otherwise, your overall company safety results may fall well short of your program goals.

Effective employee safety programs are critical for all manufacturing companies. They must start from the top down in the organization. Senior company leaders must continuously and visibly endorse and support the overall importance of the safety program to the organization. In addition, the necessary resources must be committed to ensure the continuous achievement of required company safety objectives.

Key safety program components are:

1. Safe work environment. It seems obvious, but employee working areas must be safe from all potential hazards (both naturally occurring and man-made).
2. Safe work equipment. Again, it seems obvious but can be overlooked.
3. Investing in your safety department. Equip your safety department with adequate resources, from experienced knowledgeable safety professionals to training materials.
4. Hiring "safe" people. Consistent attention should be paid in the hiring process to seek and hire individuals who indicate high levels of overall general "responsible behavior."
5. Effective training. Comprehensive, continuous, and thorough employee safety training is critical for best results. Training is not a one-time "flavor of the month" thing; it should be ever-present and ongoing.

Why Ongoing?
It should be ongoing because things change. Safety laws, legislation, and safety practices, along with possibly the work environment, equipment, materials, and products, change.

Perhaps the biggest reason training must be ongoing is because of your employees. They're human beings, and human nature makes people do silly things. They may be tired or thinking about personal issues while on the job. Perhaps they're anxious to complete an assignment, finish up a project, or meet a production goal. Then there are always employee turnover and new hires to consider.

The reasons are many, but mistakes and accidents can and do happen. That is why continuous, ongoing training serves as a reminder/reinforcement of how to work safely and why it must be ingrained in your organization, 24/7, 365 days a year.

The Carrot or the Stick?
At times, employees must change their behavior if it's not at an acceptable safety level. Equally, if the behavior is at a highly acceptable level, this means your employees are really making the required effort continuously to be safe. We all know we like to be recognized for overall efforts/job performance.

It's really "the carrot and the stick" approach. Volumes have been written and studies done indicating the "stick" approach can work only so far, and for overall most effective employee behavioral change or overall maintenance of high levels of employee performance, the "carrot" approach is more effective. "I don't have a safety program recognition budget -- it costs too much" can be a typical response. The great news is that an employee safety recognition program doesn't have to cost a lot. If it's part of an overall and effective employee safety program, far from costing anything, it can generate a positive return on investment by helping to reduce the number of accidents on the job.

These are key components in an effective employee safety reward program, once all other safety program elements are in place:

1. Program communication. "Shout it out!" Program communication must be continuous, fun, visible, and colorful. Pick a program theme. Consider posters, banners, the employee newsletter, the employee website, a corporate voicemail/email message from the CEO, an imprinted message on paycheck stubs, etc. Hold a fun kickoff meeting. Music, balloons, pizza lunch, coffee/donuts work well. Hand out company-logo pens, drink bottles, T-shirts, etc., announce the program, and explain it in detail.
2. Build a reward component into the safety program. Consider gift cards, merchandise premiums, etc. Nominal rewards can be handed out, such as $5 gift cards. Overall safety program themes can be imprinted on many merchant gift cards to reinforce your safety program message/theme.
3. Attendance at training classes. Have fun. Recognize and thank employees for attending/participating. Announce throughout the safety training classes that quizzes will take place, with everyone or the first to answer the questions correctly getting a gift card. Perhaps at the end of the training class, you can award a special "mystery prize" gift card (no one knows the card brand or the denomination). Consider dividing classes into teams for fun competition. The more fun your safety training class is, the more your employees are going to learn about safety.
4. Conduct quarterly safety tests or quizzes, with those who achieve a specific score receiving an award.
5. Catch someone doing the job right. All supervisors, plant managers, and managers in general should seek out opportunities to catch employees working safely, using the right safety equipment and clothing, and following safe work practices. Tell them -- recognize the employee on the spot, in front of his or her peers, and give him or her a recognition reward, such as a gift card.
6. You can establish a more formal employee safety recognition program for individuals, teams, shifts, or the plant as a whole.
7. Set performance goals. Ensure the goals are:

S. Specific
M. Measurable
A. Action oriented
R. Realistic
T. Time bound

(Note: If a key measurement is "reported accidents," care must be taken to ensure that neither the reward program nor any type of inappropriate peer pressure is applied to encourage an employee not to follow company policies and report an accident he's had.)
8. Celebrate the success. "Excellent companies make extraordinary use of celebrating the winning once it occurs" is a valuable quote from the famous book "In Search of Excellence." Sadly, for most of us, we're not going to play in the Super Bowl or hit that three-point shot to win an NBA championship. Our work is a huge part of our lives. In many ways, it's our Super Bowl. Let's treat it as such and reinforce and recognize our employees when they achieve and maintain required levels of employee safety.
9. What type of rewards to use? There are many different types of rewards out there, from T-shirts to trophies, merchandise premiums, and gift cards. Company-logoed items are nice, but they are not considered highly motivational by employees because they're seen as a type of company or program advertising. Merchandise is expensive, and it is very difficult to determine what a diverse group of employees really would like to earn or receive.
10. Gift cards are hot. Gift cards continue to grow in popularity in safety programs because:

  • They allow employees to choose their own reward.
  • They are cost-effective for employers and generally can be purchased at or close to face value, with no middleman markups.
  • They are easy to hand out and present.
  • They are easy to use at the retailer, online, or through a toll-free number.
  • They come in many denominations, starting from as low as $5, so they can fit any safety recognition budget.

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

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