Injury-Based Incentives a Bad Idea
for Promoting Workplace Safety 

By Dr. Judy Agnew, senior vice president of safety solutions at Aubrey Daniels International and a leading authority in the field of behavioral safety and performance management. She is the co-author of Safe By Accident: Take the Luck Out of Safety - Leadership Practices That Build A Sustainable Safety Culture (November 2010). For more information, visit
Businesses like metal centers often offer ­employees incentives to reward them for working safely. But such incentives can ­create problems, most notably the under­reporting of accidents, and don’t necessarily promote workplace safety.

In fact, OSHA is shining a renewed spotlight on safety incentive systems as part of its National Emphasis Program on Recordkeeping. At a conference last year, Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said, “We will also be taking a close look at incentive programs that have the effect of discouraging workers from reporting injuries and illnesses. These include programs that discipline workers who are injured, or safety competitions that penalize individual workers or groups of workers when someone reports an injury or illness. Let me underscore this point: OSHA will not tolerate incentive programs that discourage workers from reporting injuries and ­illnesses.”

So what is wrong with incentives? Nothing is wrong with incentives, per se. It is the way they are used and what they are based on that causes problems.

There are two general categories of incentive systems: those in which the payout is contingent on reducing or eliminating injuries and illnesses (injury-based incentives) and those in which the payout is based on behaviors that proactively support working safely (behavior-based incentives). The controversy and concern revolves mostly around injury-based incentives.

Some examples of injury-based incentive programs include the following:

n Safety bingo (Individuals who do not have accidents participate in a bingo game spread over several weeks with an opportunity to win cash.)

n Group rewards offered for going a period of time without an accident (leather jackets at the end of the year if there are no recordables, for example)

n Bonuses based on incident rates (a portion of salary as a bonus at year end if there are no recordables)

n Prizes for individuals who work for a certain number of years without a lost-time injury (for example, 5-, 10- and 15-year safe-driving awards).

In all of these incentive systems, the criteria for earning the reward is not having an accident. Given that having zero accidents is the ultimate goal of safety, the incentives sound reasonable on the surface. The problem is that the employees can get the incentives in three possible ways:

1. Employees work safely and thus earn the reward through desired safe behavior. In this case, the incentives are operating in the intended fashion; they are motivating safe behavior and that safe behavior is preventing accidents.

2. Employees engage in some or many at-risk behaviors, but are lucky in that none of the at-risk behaviors results in an accident. In this case, the incentives are rewarding luck and possibly teaching employees that at-risk behaviors are OK: “It won’t happen to me!”

3. Employees engage in at-risk behaviors and some of those at-risk behaviors result in accidents, but the accidents are not reported in order to avoid losing the incentive. In this case, incentives are motivating non-reporting of accidents.

This last point is the one most often cited as the reason to avoid injury-based incentives. It is clear that motivating non-reporting is extremely problematic and that alone is reason enough to discourage the use of such incentives. However, the second point is also troubling from a behavioral perspective. One of the big challenges in safety is convincing people that although their repeated at-risk behavior has not yet hurt them, it could. It is common to hear, “I’ve done it this way for 20 years and I’ve never been hurt; why should I change now?” The fact that an at-risk behavior can be repeated hundreds or thousands of times without resulting in an accident is unfortunate because it encourages the development of the bad habit. The fact that a person can earn an incentive on top of this makes the situation even worse, as the incentive adds one more reinforcer that promotes the at-risk behavior.

Obviously, No. 1 is the best scenario. But how can we know which of the three scenarios is playing out? In reality, probably all three are happening to some degree in most incentive systems. However, if you are not tracking safe and at-risk behavior, then how can you know? If you are not tracking behavior at all, chances are you are inadvertently reinforcing risky behavior. Why would you want to risk underreporting incidents and reinforcing luck when there is a better way?

Put very simply, injury-based incentives are a bad idea. If you don’t have such a system but are considering one, don’t! If you have an injury-based incentive system already, create a careful plan for eliminating it. There are much more effective ways to motivate safe performance that don’t encourage non-reporting and don’t reward luck.

What to do instead
The point of an incentive system should be to motivate employees to engage in safe behaviors that will prevent injuries, illness and damage to equipment. Thus, we recommend thinking more broadly than an incentive system. Incentives alone, however effective they may appear to be, are not the answer. Even behavior-based incentive systems are flawed when they focus exclusively on tangible rewards. Any time tangible rewards are offered (inside or outside of safety) there is a risk that people will lie, cheat or steal to get the incentives. The larger the incentive, the more likely this is to occur.

Incentives themselves are not bad, but they need to be managed very carefully in order to get the desired behavior while avoiding undesired behavior (like pencil whipping or other kinds of data falsification). All these issues can be avoided by creating a reinforcement system, not an incentive system.

The reinforcement system may include some tangible rewards, but tangibles should only be a small part of the system. Listed below are some of the important pieces of a reinforcement system for safety improvement:

1. Pinpoint or specify safe behaviors and make sure they are directly linked to desired results. Avoid behaviors such as attending safety meetings. Does attendance at safety meetings link directly to reduction of accidents? Is it possible to have perfect attendance at meetings and still have incidents? Focusing on wearing Kevlar gloves and cutting away from the body, for example, are better pinpoints to reduce injuries from cuts.

2. Engage people at all levels of the organization with pinpointed safety behaviors. Creating a high-performance safety culture requires everyone in the organization to engage in behaviors that prevent incidents.

3. Mix social and tangible reinforcers. Saying “good job” or giving someone a thumbs-up every single time they engage in a safe behavior will get old. Offering a gift certificate at the end of the month for those who have been observed consistently performing safely is also likely to be unsuccessful. It is the blend of social and small tangibles (with a heavy emphasis on social) that we have found to be most effective.

Whenever possible, the social reinforcement should link the behaviors to their natural outcomes with statements such as, “By lifting with your knees bent and back straight, you are preventing potentially debilitating back injury” or “We are seeing fewer slips, trips and falls since we all started reporting hazards more diligently.”

Interestingly, by using social reinforcement and small tangibles, natural reinforcers begin to take over. Employees begin to report a sense of pride when they engage in safe behavior and they feel good when they help others work more safely.

By linking reinforcement to behavioral data that shows what workers are actually doing to prevent accidents, rather than to some arbitrary incentive, you will promote more of these positive behaviors. When preventive behaviors increase, the incident rate takes care of itself.

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Friday, February 23, 2018