The incentive is the reward, but don

Eliminating the Controversy Over Safety Incentive Programs

Research proves that positive reinforcement generates consistent and continuous behavior change.

Safety incentives in the workplace have become an ongoing topic of discussion and controversy, with many different opinions. Some safety professionals believe that incentives create a culture for hiding incidents. Others feel that a safety incentive program replaces a true safety program. Both could not be farther from the truth if an incentive program is properly designed. Traditional safety incentive programs do encourage under-reporting by offering employees rewards that are linked to the reduction of injuries, such as a goal for zero OSHA recordable accidents, but non-traditional safety incentive programs foster a workplace of proactive involvement by everyone.

The real problem is under-reporting, not incentives. Under-reporting is most likely a symptom of management's not being truly committed to a safe work environment. They are most likely concerned with regulatory compliance. Companies cannot rely on a safety incentive program to be the basis for their safety culture but should see it as an enhancement to their safety efforts. They can create a safety culture where employees are motivated to take ownership of the job site by getting involved, identifying hazards, taking corrective actions, observing and reporting unsafe behaviors, or performing a root cause analysis—these are just a few proactive goals. An effective program goes far beyond basic law and is based on ethics and doing whatever is necessary to create a safe workplace.

Evidence shows that negative reinforcement and punishment have little effect on behavior change, but research proves that positive reinforcement generates consistent and continuous behavior change. Unless people are positively motivated to change and take ownership of the goals, then the preferred behavior will not be recognized and, even worse, could potentially be applied only when management is present, which is seen in many cases. Behavior modification through reward and recognition encourages and inspires employees to get involved by identifying and eliminating those hazards before they result in an injury.

Consider this: Is it the hazards on the job site that cause injury or is it the behavior of those exposed to the hazard?

A properly structured incentive program will motivate employees by focusing on proactive behavior, leading indicators as opposed to lagging, and employee involvement. Don’t get confused, compensation is what an employee receives for doing their job, it’s an expectation. Motivation is the recognition and reward for their efforts and accomplishments. A properly designed safety incentive program can transform an employee into a safety resource.

Gallup reports that the cost of lost productivity among unhappy or disengaged employees is approximately $300 billion a year. Employees who are not engaged in their job, with their team, or their work site have higher absenteeism, produce less, and demonstrate a poor quality of work. Incentive programs that recognize and reward participants create a positive work environment, which leads to improved productivity, improved attendance, improved quality, and increased employee engagement.

Properly structured programs will benefit the company, as well. Companies profit from reduced workers' compensation claims, and recent studies report that an effective program results in nearly double the shareholder return. Why invest in short-term goals when you can invest in long-term sustainable results?

Elements of a Successful, Compliant Incentive Program
Consideration of a safety incentive program should not be taken lightly. Planning meticulously and vigilantly is required to ensure that the direction of the program will meet OSHA ethics standards, that the goals set forth are SMART, and that the program is set on a path for long-term success.

There are several elements that must be addressed to ensure a successful and compliant incentive program.

  • Professional partner. First and foremost, partner with a qualified incentive company that has extensive knowledge and experience in workplace safety, a partner that can consult and guide you through the design and implementation process of a safety incentive program guaranteed to be successful in achieving your goals by creating a safe place to work.
  • Comprehensive program. Any safety incentive program must be part of an overall complete and comprehensive safety culture. "Culture" is fundamentally employees' opinion regarding the company's safety policies, procedures, and practices. An incentive program is not a fix-all, but an enhancement to an already existing safety culture.
  • Reward and recognize. The incentive is the reward, but don't forget the recognition. Employees want to be recognized for their efforts. They want to know that the company appreciates them. What better way to show your appreciation than by giving them an award of their choice (reward) and presenting them with the award in front of their peers (recognition). The two work hand in hand, establishing a relationship of trust and a feeling of appreciation with each individual employee and making them feel a part of something much greater than a job.
  • Management commitment. OSHA states that a major element of an effective program must include management commitment and employee involvement. Employees must see management's commitment by being visible advocates of the program if they expect their employees to strive to achieve the company’s goals. Managers who demonstrate that they are sincerely interested and concerned for their employees and the safety of their employees will create an environment of trust where everyone feels open to share ideas and get involved, which in turn will lead to a progressive safety culture.
  • Open culture. A program must provide employees a venue to notify management of observations, suggestions, and potential hazards without fear of reprisal. Don't make the mistake of creating of culture of blame, but instead create a culture of contribution.
  • Individualized. A program should be fair and equitable to all participants. Don’t implement a program that creates a sense of luck or chance. Avoid programs that only reward random winners, such as with drawings or games. These can create the reverse reaction by demotivating employees: "Oh, well, I am just going to quit trying because I never win." A program should make participants feel like they have the ability to control their own destiny, that they have involvement and influence because they have a choice in what is rewarding to them and a program that they can share with their families. In a Synovate Employee Survey, 82 percent of employees said that the most important feature of an incentive program is their ability to choose a reward that they want.
  • Goals. Goals that we want employees to strive to achieve need to be easy to remember and clearly defined. Follow the KISS principle--keep it simple. Make sure everyone knows and can express exactly what is expected of them.  Make sure the goals are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely). Remember, "what gets measured gets done." Finally, the program goals should be published and easily accessible. Management should continue instilling those goals through communication on an ongoing and consistent basis.
  • Training. Employees must be provided the tools and training needed to achieve the goals and do their job safely and effectively. If the proper training is not provided, then the expectation of the achievement diminishes. OSHA considers training an essential part of every employer’s safety program. Training should be viewed as an investment, not an expense.
  • Value. The reward should accurately compensate for the effort. Determine how much effort, on the employees' part, the goal will require and make certain the reward is equivalent. If a goal is going to take hours to accomplish, the reward must be motivating enough for them to invest the time and effort.
  • Consistency. The company goals should remain a priority monthly, weekly, daily, even hourly in the employees' minds. Consistency of rewards and recognition will keep the participants engaged. They will begin to look forward to that time each month/quarter when they know they will be receiving their reward for a job well done.

In summary, don't be concerned or overwhelmed when considering all of the successful elements required. The most important factor to begin the process is partnering with the right incentive company. They can consult, advise, and direct you through the entire process, ensuring that all of the elements of a successful safety incentive program are addressed, the program follows OSHA ethics standards, and the program is implemented and managed properly.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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