Why Zero Injuries is a Bad Safety Goal

Is the “Zero Injuries” safety goal a good one? Not particularly, at least on its own. The idea of no one getting hurt at work is great and is what should be strived for. That being said, setting a safety goal of no injuries is not particularly useful unless accompanied by identifying specific and measurable behaviors and actions that the workforce must embrace to reach the ultimate goal of zero injuries.

why zero injuries is a bad safety goal

Many companies set safety goals each year. These goals often incorporate the idea of having no accidents or injuries. Common slogans for these goals include things like “Zero Harm”, “Zero Injuries”, “Goal Zero”, and so forth. There are several issues with these types of goals, which are explored below.

Why a Zero Injury Goal is Not Enough on its Own

Setting a safety goal of zero injuries is fine to do, but employees should not only have that sole goal as their only guiding principle when it comes to safety. By setting a broad safety goal of zero injuries, and when especially tying a bonus to hitting this goal, you can discourage employees from working safely at all. This is especially true if a bonus is tied to having zero injuries over a long time period and an injury occurs at the beginning of the year, month, quarter, etc.

why zero injuries is not enough

The goal of zero injuries over an entire year, or even for just over a month for large workforces, can seem out of reach and out of the individual employees’ control. The employees may feel powerless to contribute to the goal. These types of goals also do not provide any tangible actions or behaviors that the employees can strive for in order to hit the goal.

These goals can also encourage employees not to report injuries, which is a significant issue.

Real World Example

Let’s imagine you are right out of high school, and you are hired to do an entry-level job in a chemical processing plant. During orientation, you are told that the company cares about safety and that there is a large bonus for all employees if there are no injuries. You think to yourself, “Great!”. But after a short safety overview training session, no other feedback is provided on what working safely truly looks like.

zero injury goal example

Even if you want to work safely, you might not understand what actions you need to take to do so. Hopefully, the safety training that is provided covers these actions, but if the company incorporates smaller safety goals/rewards relating to individual employee actions, then the employees will have a better understanding of what to strive for. This is especially important if there is a safety incentive program in place.

It is vital to set clear goals that are specific to the workforce that reinforces working safely every single day. Incentivizing employees to follow safe work practices and to go beyond just following the safety rules can be an effective way to reduce the risk of injuries occurring.

Proactive Versus Reactive Safety Goals

A safety goal of zero injuries is reactive, meaning it is solely focusing on a particular outcome instead of being proactive to encourage specific behaviors and actions that will help lead to the ultimate goal of reducing the risk of injuries. To further clarify this idea, there are examples provided below of reactive versus proactive safety goals.

proactive vs reactive safety goals

Reactive Safety Goals/Incentives Examples

  • Zero injuries over any time period.
  • “Free Pizza Fridays” when employees do not have an injury during a work week.
  • A monetary bonus for not having any injuries or accidents.

Proactive Safety Goals/Incentives Examples

  • Rewarding or recognizing employees for consistently wearing required PPE.
  • Rewarding or recognizing employees for consistently completing required safety paperwork.
  • Rewarding employees for zero findings during a work area inspection.
  • Rewarding or recognizing employees for turning in a specific number of hazards over a specific time period.

A company can still set a goal of zero injuries, but there should be small actions and goals targeted over shorter time periods that reward or focus on proactive behaviors. By doing so, employees understand what is expected from them that will assist in reaching the ultimate goal of reducing the risk of injuries.

Incentivize Proactive Behaviors

As mentioned above, there are many different specific behaviors and actions that a company can target to encourage all employees to work safely. By doing so, employees understand what needs to be done to ensure their own safety as well as the employees around them. These tangible, specific, and easy-to-understand goals also can help make the employees feel that they can impact the outcome of the goals.

Make the Rewarded Actions or Goals Specific

Safety rewards and goals should be specific to the challenges and issues the company is facing. For larger companies, the goals should be tailored to individual divisions or segments of the operation.

make safety goals specific

For example, if a manufacturing company wants to reduce the number of auto accidents that it is having, it is great to reward the drivers and dispatchers for specific behaviors and actions that will reduce the risk of accidents.

However, if a blanket safety bonus is tied to not having any auto accidents for all employees, then the program is not rewarding proactive behaviors, and it also leaves out warehouse workers who do not have any control over this outcome from striving towards a safer workplace.

Real World Example

To assist in further clarifying the idea of making specific and targeted goals/rewards around motivating employees to work safely, we will use an example scenario. A manufacturing company has its safety committee review its injuries over a five-year period. They find that many of their injuries are caused in part by poor housekeeping in work areas. They decide to reward the warehouse employees for several specific actions each month. The rewards are as follows:

  • Any employee who turns in a hazard to the safety department will be entered into a raffle for a gift card.
  • Any employee who turns in an idea to improve the safety of their work area will be entered into a raffle for a gift card.
  • All employees will get the monthly bonus if no housekeeping or organization-related issues are found during work area inspections.

These rewards are specific and empower the employees to take accountability for their work and work areas. Even if there is a larger goal of zero injuries, these smaller goals and rewards give the employees specific safe behaviors to strive for. All of the examples above can assist in achieving the ultimate goal of having fewer injuries.

safety accountability

They also provide motivation for the employees to work safely every single day, even if there is an injury on the first day of the new year. Otherwise, if a safety bonus is tied to not having any injuries and one occurs, then there is no incentive for the employees to go above and beyond when it comes to safety efforts.

There does not always have to be rewards or bonuses to get employees to take specific actions. Disciplinary action for not following the rules or participating in the safety program can be effective. Even just taking time to recognize individual employees or entire work crews can motivate employees to take certain actions. That being said, safety bonuses/rewards can go much further in motivating employees as well as help put a positive spin on participating in the safety efforts.

Some companies are fearful of putting any safety incentive program in place because they do not understand OSHA’s stance on these programs.

What OSHA Says About 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.

osha safety incentive program guidance

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 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 incentive feedback

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.”


Having a goal of zero injuries is admirable. As discussed above, these goals on their own are not enough to be effective. They can also be problematic and harm a company’s safety program. Challenge the status quo when it comes to safety goals.

Ask yourself:

  • Are our goals realistic?
  • Are our goals or targets proactive or reactive?
  • Are we targeting the correct behaviors and actions that will lead us to have fewer injuries/incidents?
  • Are individual employees rewarded or recognized for working safely?
  • Do employees understand what is required of them?

By answering these questions honestly, you can begin to craft safety goals and safety incentives (if applicable) that will assist in having fewer injuries and incidents.

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