By Kathleen Clair, CSP, MS, SMS
Companies are always looking for creative ways to prevent workplace accidents. One way that employers look to ensure workers stay safe on the job is by implementing an incentive program. Incentive programs often reward employees for safe actions and periods of accident-free workdays.
But do these programs actually work?
This article will take a look at safety incentive programs, pros and cons, OSHA’s opinion on these programs, share some examples of rewards that can be offered, and tips on how to develop a successful safety incentive program at your organization.
What is a Safety Incentive Program?
A safety incentive program is a reward-based program used to encourage employees to meet or exceed safety goals in the workplace. Safety incentive programs promote worker safety when done correctly. These programs compensate workers with rewards once team members have met specific safety goals.
Safety incentive programs can be in place for a specific project, a certain amount of time, or as an ongoing motivational tool to promote safe work practices on the job. Incentive programs are commonly used in such industries as manufacturing, construction, warehousing, and refineries.
Safety incentive programs in the past have been a somewhat controversial tool when not implemented correctly. There was and still remains concern by many in the safety industry that these programs discourage workers to report workplace injuries and illnesses when incentivizing not having accidents.
A worker may get pressure from coworkers to not report an injury. The last thing a safety manager wants is an injured employee continuing to work. And a minor injury can quickly turn into a more serious issue if it goes untreated.
Proactive vs. Reactive Programs
Some safety incentive programs are rate-based or reactive, which involve a company rewarding employees if no injuries were reported for a specific period. This type of “lagging indicator” program can result in injuries being unreported because the injured employee does not want to be the person to ruin the incentive for the month. He or she may even face pressure from coworkers to not report the injury because it will “blow their chance for a reward.”
These type of programs are reactive in nature because the employees are not rewarded for taking specific positive actions that promote safety in the workplace.
Not all safety incentive programs are rates based or reactive in nature. Behavior-based programs are more proactive in nature. Proactive programs reward employees for engaging in the safety program, completing safety training, and reporting hazards and near misses.
It is believed by many safety professionals that this type of safety incentive program is more effective. It encourages and rewards employees for safe behaviors, therefore, workers are not afraid to report injuries and it also can improve the safety program overall.
What is OSHA’s View on Safety Incentive Programs?
A 2012 report published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that rate-based safety incentive programs, which reward workers for achieving low rates of reported injuries or illnesses, may discourage reporting of injuries and illnesses.
In the past, OSHA provided guidance that discouraged employers from rewarding employees with cash bonuses, “free pizza Fridays”, and other incentives for successfully meeting low injury rates. OSHA reasoned that employees would be so motivated by the bonus that they would withhold information about their own or others’ injuries to keep the rates low and be rewarded with the incentive prize.
In an interview, a former assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, David Michaels, stated that “No one avoids getting hurt simply to get a prize at the end of the week or a bonus”, and that “giving out prizes or bonuses doesn’t prevent injuries. They discourage injured workers from reporting their injuries. Workers do not need bonuses to work safely. They need safe workplaces.”
Many employers felt that these OSHA policies were getting in the way of effective and important safety programs.
However, in 2018 OSHA issued a memorandum clarifying its position on incentive programs. OSHA stated that it believes that many employers who implement safety incentive programs do so to promote workplace safety and health. OSHA stated that action taken under a safety incentive program would only violate the OSHA rule “if the employer took the action to penalize an employee for reporting a work-related injury or illness rather than for the legitimate purpose of promoting workplace safety and health.”
The new guidance stated that safety incentive programs are retaliatory and unlawful only if they seek “to penalize an employee for reporting a work-related injury or illness rather than for the legitimate purpose of promoting workplace safety and health.”
OSHA’s memo also stated that rate-based incentive programs are permissible “as long as they are not implemented in a manner that discourages reporting.” The agency said that it will not cite an employer who takes a negative action against an employee under a rate-based incentive program—withholding a prize or a bonus due to a reported injury, for example—“as long as the employer has implemented adequate precautions to ensure that employees feel free to report an injury or illness.”
According to OSHA, employers can do this by “taking positive steps to create a workplace culture that emphasizes safety”, such as implementing an incentive program that rewards employees for identifying unsafe working conditions or establishing a training program for all employees to reinforce reporting rights and responsibilities.
OSHA went as far as to say that evidence that an employer “consistently enforces legitimate work rules (whether or not an injury or illness is reported) would demonstrate that the employer is serious about creating a culture of safety, not just the appearance of reducing rates.”
So, it seems OSHA is now on board with safety incentive programs when implemented correctly. Now let us take a look at how to implement one of these programs in your workplace.
Tips for Implementing Your Program
Below are some helpful pointers on implementing a successful program in your workplace.
To ensure a successful program, workers must feel that their input is important and welcomed and that their voices are clearly heard. Employers should take into account the language, education, and skill levels of their workers. If workers fear retaliation or discrimination for speaking up, they are not likely to participate in the program.
If an accident investigation focuses on blaming workers rather than finding the underlying conditions that led to the incident, then the program will not be successful. If reporting an incident or concern jeopardizes the award, then employers will not report accidents and incidents.
Ensure there is management support and involvement.
If management does not 100% support and embrace the safety incentive program and participate in it, neither will employees. Workers must know that the program is fair, that it reasonably is administered, and that they have the opportunity to win the reward.
If that is not the case, the workers will not support or participate in the program. Employees’ trust in the program can best be accomplished by active and strong management involvement.
Form a safety committee.
Forming a safety committee is a great way to reinforce the importance of safety and to get workers to participate in the safety program. Employers should select workers from all areas of the workforce. The committee should work together to review accident reports, perform workplace inspections, and make improvement recommendations to management.
Do not punish for reporting.
Punishing employees for reporting injuries or unsafe conditions in the workplace means employees are not likely to report them.
Encourage and reward training. Employers should identify where accidents and injuries have occurred in the past and strive to prevent them through training. Focused training will keep safety top-of-mind and will demonstrate that employees know how to avoid these injuries.
Reward reporting and solutions.
Workers should be encouraged to report unsafe conditions, but better yet, they should also provide solutions or fixes to the problem. For example, an employee could report that repairing a valve on a tank is unsafe because it exposes workers to a fall. It would be even better for an employee to not only report the hazard but offer ways that the hazard can be mitigated. For example, using fall protection equipment or constructing a guardrail above the tank.
Offering valuable awards for greater participation in the incentive program, like ideas on how to rectify hazardous situations, demonstrates the value a company places on workers’ knowledge.
Some Examples of Safety Incentive Rewards
Rewards for reporting hazards are a good way to incentivize proactive behaviors. Programs should reward workers for reporting near misses and hazards and encourage involvement in the safety and health management system. Below are some examples of rewards that you may want to offer in your program.
Gift Card Prizes
A highly prized gift card can motivate employees in a safety incentive program. Employers should consider giving gift cards to businesses that employees can use such as restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, or online retail stores. Employers can scale amounts based on the goals and length of the initiative. Companies should consider one amount of gift card reward for reaching a safety milestone and then increase the gift card value for reaching the next goal.
Another way to encourage safety in the workplace is to offer time off as an award. The award could be hours off of work that can be accumulated and used as an entire vacation day off of work or even passes to leave work early. Before implementing time off bonuses, you should consider outlining how you will account for time off, who will process the requests and if there will be a certain period when employees must use their reward time.
Another incentive program involves rewarding individual employees with safety-related company merchandise when they meet specific milestones. Companies can start with a travel mug or tote bag with a logo that announces the employee’s success with safety measures. The next step up might be a company t-shirt or jacket. Companies should choose products that workers will find useful and appealing.
Common Safety Incentive Program Pitfalls
When implementing a safety incentive program, think through how you want to set up the program and possible issues that could arise. Below are several common pitfalls that are present in these programs.
Being Reactive (or Just Not Proactive)
You must ensure that the employees are incentivized to proactively work safe. If the program only rewards not having injuries, the employees are not incentivized to take specific proactive steps to work safely.
Rewarding Not Reporting Incidents
As stated throughout this post, one of the biggest issues with safety incentives programs is rewarding not having accidents or injuries. Naturally, this rewards not reporting whenever possible.
Not Rewarding Frequently Enough
If companies are only doing an end of year safety award, this can discourage employees from actively participating all year to earn the reward. For example, if someone does something to lose their reward for the entire year in January, they are more likely to take risks while working.
Rewarding employees on monthly or quarterly basis with smaller rewards can keep the safety incentive at the top of their mind while also allowing employees to have the chance to earn the reward if they previously lost it earlier in the year.
Tying Rewards to Outcomes Outside the Employees Control
Incentive programs work better if employees can see that their actions are leading to the desired outcome and it is achievable. For example, if a company is tying safety goals into increasing sales numbers, many employees can be discouraged from putting additional effort into working safely since they have no control over the sales numbers for the year.
Safety incentives can help to build a culture that values safety in an organization. Some accidents will happen, no matter what steps are taken to prevent them, especially in hazardous industries such as construction and manufacturing. Sometimes tools and equipment fail, and people can get injured but implementing a safety incentive program can help empower workers to identify and report unsafe actions and conditions in the workplace.
A safety incentive program can help to create a culture of safety and encourages safe behaviors. The key is to ensure the program fits the goals and objectives of your company and involves your employees.
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