Tangible Incentive Programs Improve Safety Results

It is a best practice to integrate training within the safety incentive program.

But there is a catch. Safety incentive programs must be structured and administered correctly or they will not achieve the desired results of effective safe behavior reinforcement and lasting behavior change. Instead, as many safety professionals have experienced, when incentives are used improperly, they find that all they have run was an ineffective contest or promotion, and the gifts given seemed to be money wasted.

The Incentive Marketing Association (IMA) is the leading standards-setting organization in the $44 billion incentive industry, with members comprised of engagement consultants, performance improvement agencies, incentive technology companies, and suppliers of all types of tangible merchandise, including electronics, sporting goods, housewares, travel, digital music, artwork, gift cards, etc. During the past 30 years, the IMA and other industry research organizations, such as the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF), have tracked, gathered, and analyzed data to understand and prove how and why tangible incentive programs work to motivate and engage people to improve their performance and create behavior change. The IMA has created a curriculum for training and certification of industry professionals, and here are some of the fundamental principles:

1. Structured program. To work effectively, an incentive program must be aligned with the strategic objectives of the company and viewed as a long-term performance improvement initiative, not a short-term contest. Rules must be designed to motivate and engage the targeted participants, which in the case of safety incentives generally are people who work in a manual labor capacity, such as factory and/or warehouse workers, drivers, and their managers. From a structural perspective, it is usually best to award people right after proper behaviors are observed and actions are taken because these are leading indicators of success. Examples of proper behaviors include safe lifting and the consistent use of safety goggles, and actions include taking safety training classes and quizzes. When safety incentive programs are ineffective, it is usually because they are structured based on giving people awards after safety results have been achieved, such as "X" number of days without an accident. Although results like this are certainly the objective, the problem with this structure is that it often leads to under-reporting of accidents, along with processes that are not being followed properly, so no lasting behavior change occurs and ultimately long-term results are poor. Results are a "lagging indicator" of safety incentive program success.

2. Communications campaign. The program must include a well-planned campaign of ongoing communications before, during, and after the incentive period to bring attention to the program and the safe behaviors and objectives that are desired. Communications generally include workplace posters, notices, branded promotional items, letters to the home, manager tools, and, where appropriate, game pieces, award certificates, and other ways to award people "on the spot."

3. Training and certification. Participants must know how to work safely and the procedures they are expected to follow and demonstrate them on the job. It is not enough to comply and attend safety training classes because this doesn’t ensure learning has occurred, nor that it will be incorporated into safer behaviors. It is important to provide safety training quizzes, ideally with certification and ongoing reinforcement. To accomplish this most effectively, it is a best practice to integrate training within the safety incentive program. Many incentive technology platforms provide this tool, along with the ability to award a small number of award points for taking the quizzes and answering a specified number of the questions correctly and for achieving increasing levels of certification. Reports that show incorrect answers can be used by managers to provide remedial training and positive reinforcement.

4. Tracking and reporting. It is important to track all aspects of the program to determine the level of engagement and success, as well as ways the program can be improved. Safety incentive programs are not static, but rather living campaigns that should be continuously monitored and improved, with changes made to rules, duration, communications, training, and focused promotions. Many incentive platforms allow administrators to view and download reports for all types of program and performance metrics.

5. Coaching and reinforcement. This is a critical component of safety programs. Managers must be trained to observe and coach participants in a positive, caring way and not as "safety police," which people avoid. All employees know it is in their best interests to do work safely and to avoid injuries and lost work time, but much like weight loss and exercise programs, it is painful for people to change our habits. We can do so more effectively if we have a coach helping us in a trusted way and providing continuous reinforcement.

6. Rewards and recognition. People respond positively when they are rewarded for their efforts and enjoy receiving recognition in a meaningful way. These two terms are often used interchangeably, but according to Recognition Professionals International (RPI), the key distinctions are that rewards are incentives earned by people for achieving specified performance objectives (actions and results) and recognition is awarded to people for having accomplished results that are above and beyond the basic expectations of the job. To determine the best type of incentives to offer -- whether a specific merchandise selection from "plateaus" at various price points or a broad, points-based catalog, gift cards, travel, or other options -- it is important to consider what will motivate the participants, based on their demographics and psychographics, for the potential value of awards they can reasonably earn during the program period. It is also important to determine the best method with which to recognize the recipients for their accomplishments, whether on an individual basis or in a more formal presentation in front of their peers, such as at an employee meeting. It might be worthwhile to publicize the top safety performers in their local newspapers to add to the amount of "social recognition" they receive.

Best Practices Case Studies
Bill Sims, Jr., president of the Bill Sims Company, reports that during 2011, a large home services company based in the Southeast used its Smartcard behavior-based recognition system, which focuses on leading indicators to provide positive reinforcement for safe behaviors instead of the more prevalent lagging indicator systems. He explains that OSHA frowns on lagging indicator programs due to concerns about injury hiding.

In the pilot program, the client documented a more than 30 percent decrease in lost-time injuries, vehicle crashes, and general liability claims, with a 478 percent return on investment. As one manager explained, "We are discussing things from a safety perspective that we've never discussed before and before we started the Smartcard system, we had workers take shortcuts and break safety rules, but we never talked about it. We've gone from not wanting a reprimand to actually talking about it in a more positive way." Another manager said, "I like the theory behind it. The focus on the reward is there, and people are thinking about safety more than ever before."

"Firms with existing legacy incentive systems, which are lagging indicator-based, are moving into leading indicator systems that track and are measurable because it allows them in a scientific way to change behavior for the good," Sims said.

Saro Hartounian, CEO of Harco Incentive Solutions, reports that a safety incentive program that focuses on training can be extremely effective because the application of knowledge at work is a leading indicator that safety results will be accomplished. He cites a program his company has run for more than seven years with Ajax Paving, one of the largest highway paving companies in the United States. In this program, highway paving workers are awarded for taking online quizzes based on material shown in the program's website and presented in weekly safety training meetings. The award points are redeemable from a catalog of personally selectable gifts, which has led to much higher levels of engagement, according to Safety Manager Mandy Kustra. Participants not only score higher on the safety training quizzes, but also demonstrate safer behaviors on the job, which leads to lower accident rates, reduced insurance and medical costs, and reductions in related job site delays.

Brian Galonek, president of All Star Incentive Marketing, reports that a tangible safety incentive program it ran for a major solid waste management company had extremely positive results. The program involved 20,000 truck drivers in 600 divisions and awarded points for the promotion of safe work habits, reinforcement of safety training, and improving the safety culture overall. Divisions that participated in the program doubled the reduction of claims versus non-participating ones. Galonek attributes this to rewarding individuals, not teams. He also reports that 90 percent of the awards were redeemed online, even though a mail-in alternative was available. The company had originally presumed that many of the participants might not have Internet access.

Why Some Safety Incentive Programs Fail
According to Richard Pollock, CSP, president and founder of Comprehensive Loss Management (CLMI), a leading safety training company, tangible incentives can work and should be included within safety programs, but programs often fail for these reasons:

1. Many programs don't reward individuals for specific behaviors, but instead offer groups of people rewards when collective goals are achieved, such as no lost-time accidents for the month. These programs often reward people who have not demonstrated improved safety behaviors, but rather are just lucky.

2. When the group goal is not achieved -- for example, a lost-time accident occurs -- the program is discontinued and no rewards are given, even to the people who have worked hard to demonstrate safe behaviors. Worse, when these programs offer increasingly greater awards and as more months that go by without a reported incident or lost-time accident, peer pressure encourages people to hide and not report injuries. This can result in increasingly dangerous behaviors and work environments, which concerns OSHA and many safety professionals.

3. Programs often don't involve supervisors, who are the most influential people to directly encourage and coach employees to achieve safety results through improved behaviors.

Pollock emphasizes that tangible incentives are an important part of the mix to motivate people, however, it is first essential to ensure the company has a solid safety program in place to begin with, including knowing the hazards of the workplace; developing control systems that employees need to know and follow, including processes, equipment, and machinery; training employees and supervisors; an audit inspection process to ensure controls are being followed; and having an effective safety communications campaign.

From the perspective of performance improvement, it is also a best practice to integrate the safety incentive program within an overall employee engagement system that includes manager and peer-to-peer recognition, suggestion submissions and innovation collaboration, service awards, and new employee and customer referrals.

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

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