Safety incentive programs seem to be one of the pillars of any business that puts emphasis on safety. People swear by them, insist they are necessary and say their employees love them and contribute to employee motivation. However, when you actually look deeper into them, many incentive programs don’t work.
This failure of safety incentive programs has nothing to do with the tools that are used to create them. There are so many great resources out there. You can do scratch-off cards, play bingo, do raffles, or give points to spend on practically anything. The choices are limitless. The problem is how the program is developed and promoted at the company level and the lack of employee motivation around them.
If your incentive program is not working, it’s not the point-giving, scratch-off, wheel-of-prizes that are to blame. It is how you are framing your program or just that many incentive programs don’t work.
WHAT ARE SAFETY INCENTIVE PROGRAMS?
A safety incentive program is essentially a reward system. If an employee works safely they are given a prize. The definition of working safely and the prize are determined by the company. The amount of the incentive is determined by the company.
This method to improve employee motivation to work safely actually takes behavioral economics into the safety field. It has been found that when you dangle a carrot on a stick, it can motivate people to do the desired behavior; in our case, following the safety rules. But, don’t just think it works for EVERY behavior. I’ll talk about motivation in part two of this topic.
WHY DO WE USE SAFETY INCENTIVE PROGRAMS FOR EMPLOYEE MOTIVATION
You can tell I am hinting at a downside to all of this, right? Believe me, there are good sides to safety incentive program as well. This is why they are used so much in our profession. Many people see that they work. Some benefits of using incentive programs include:
- Reducing injury rates
- Increase compliance with SOPs
- Positive feedback to employees
- Improving morale by rewarding employees for doing a good job
THE PROBLEM WITH USING INCENTIVES FOR EMPLOYEE MOTIVATION
The dark side of incentive programs does exist and they are hard to overcome. In fact, because these issues are so hard to overcome, when I work with a company that doesn’t have an incentive program, I am adamant about never starting one. Or at least never starting one without an end date.
My first issue with safety incentives is that you are essentially rewarding the employee for doing the job the way they are supposed to be doing it; just like their paycheck does.
“Here are the rules, this is what you have to do, and for doing so you get a paycheck. But, wait!! If you also make sure you follow these rules, we’ll give you a prize.”
Doesn’t that make it sound like the safety rules are optional and not attached to their job expectations?
Secondly, once you start giving an ongoing safety incentive, the employees start to feel entitled to receive it.
“You have been rewarding me for doing a pre-operation inspection for six months; now you expect me to do it without the prize? You crazy?”
This kind of sounds like a pay cut, doesn’t it?
If your incentive is based on injuries or incidents, then you are essentially incentivizing hiding accidents and not reporting them; even if you stipulated strong disciplinary action against non-reporting. It is human nature to want to win, compete, and get the prize; even if it means a little lie to get it.
Non-reporting of accidents leads to a false sense of safety program success. Just like the article on trend analysis points out. You may look good on paper, but in reality, you are walking on eggshells waiting for the big one to happen.
WHY A PAYCHECK ISN’T ENOUGH TO MOTIVATE EMPLOYEES
So with all these downsides, why do we keep doing it? Honestly, the only good reason to have a safety incentive program is to boost morale, have some fun with safety, train on a behavior (build a habit), or to fix a current problematic behavior trend.
Unfortunately, many employees have an expectation of receiving a safety incentive. I am not sure where this expectation comes from, except, obviously, from their past experiences. You may have given one in the past or you have been doing one for a while or their past employers may have had one; this leads to expectation. The more they have been exposed to the practice of receiving a prize for working safely, the more they will expect it.
Strangely enough, there may also be regulatory requirements to have a safety incentive program. There are some states or certification programs that have it in their laws to have a safety incentive program. This blows my mind, seriously, did they not consult behavioral psychologist?!
DON’T HAVE AN INCENTIVE PROGRAM JUST TO HAVE AN INCENTIVE PROGRAM
If you decide to have incentives as part of your safety management program, be sure that they are effective. Nothing is worse than putting money out for an incentive program just to say you have an incentive program. If it does not have a specific purpose, then don’t do it.
Incentive programs should be enticing and exciting. You want the employees to WANT TO participate. If there is no excitement or break room talk about it, you are missing the mark and wasting your money. If they don’t care about it, they won’t put in the effort to make the changes needed to make the program worth it.
MORE EMPLOYEE MOTIVATION TALK AHEAD
Even with all the negatives about the incentive programs, I know that there are many of you that still love them. Everyone is entitled to an opinion.
Click Here for Part 2 of this topic. I will discuss how to measure the effectiveness of your program, give you a list of things to consider when selecting your incentive program, as well as, what my FAVORITE kinds of incentive programs are that truly work on employee motivation to follow safety rules.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
Obviously, using incentives for employee motivation is a sore spot for me. What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts on incentive programs and ones that work. Leave a comment below and tell me about your favorite Safety Incentive Program and why.
Hi, I'm Brye (rhymes with sky)! I am a self-proclaimed safety geek with two decades of general industry safety experience. Specializing in bringing safety programs to a world-class level and building a safety culture, I have trained and coached many safety managers, just like you, on how to effectively manage workplace safety in the real world. I would love to help you too.