Putting Incentives to Work

How can you make awards and incentives a key part of a successful safety program?

Don Eggenschwiller has no intention of turning his back on the safety and health field's technical foundation. He is convinced, however, that safety success depends on more than just a well-designed workplace and state-of-the-art engineering controls. Employee behavior and motivation are key factors, according to Eggenschwiller, corporate director of safety, environment and health for Standard Register Co., Dayton, Ohio. The self-proclaimed "humaneer" believes safety awards and incentives "help keep safety in everyone's mind."

"I have seen people give away everything from yo-yos to a car," said Eggenschwiller, who does consulting and training through the National Safety Council and other organizations. "We need to involve everyone in the safety effort. Awards and incentives put safety in the spotlight."

"Incentives add an element of fun to a serious issue and give everyone a stake in it," said Dave Fromm of American Safety Management, a Kansas City, Mo., consulting firm that develops safety awards and incentives programs as part of a 15-point loss control strategy. "I"ve never seen anybody lose money on a well-designed incentive program."

1. Where do incentives fit in a safety program?

The short answer, according to Fromm, is that incentives belong in organizations that have already met their first responsibility eliminating unsafe conditions and hazards. Incentives "attack unsafe acts and employee behaviors," Fromm said. They are not a substitute for good job design and engineering controls, he emphasized.

The more complex answer involves understanding the three keys to motivating workers, according to David J. Abramis, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Management and Human Resource Management at California State University &endash; Long Beach. They are:

Hiring and firing procedures. Employers, he said, should recruit safety-conscious workers and emphasize during hiring the importance of adherence to safety procedures and the penalties for noncompliance.

Communication and culture. Top and middle managers should have safety performance as part of their goals and a consideration in bonuses and promotions. This should encourage them to make safety a key part of the corporate culture.

Connections between behavior and rewards. Abramis said it is important that awards and incentives be clearly and quickly linked to specific performance measures.

"Whatever is important to the CEO and head of manufacturing will become important to everybody else," said J. William Townsend, Ph.D., an industrial psychology faculty member at the University of Memphis and Rhodes College, both in Memphis, Tenn.

2. What kinds of activities should be rewarded?

The traditional approach is to base reward eligibility on accident-free days. Fromm emphasized that should pertain to only those injuries that result in lost time and other "significant cases" (which he defines as costing at least $500). This encourages the reporting of first aid cases and accounts for injuries that are serious but do not result in lost time.

Early reports of wrist and shoulder pain, Fromm said, should not affect eligibility for awards. Carpal tunnel release surgery, even if it is done on the weekend and the person returns to work on restricted duty, is a "significant case," Fromm said.

As a result of concerns about injury underreporting, there has been a recent backlash against awards linked to injury-free records. Some employers have moved to behavior-based programs, including rewarding employees for making safety suggestions, participating in audits, and implementing job improvements.

The best approach may be a combination of rewarding good behaviors and the absence of serious injuries, according to E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., a safety incentives expert who teaches industrial psychology at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, Blacksburg, Va.

"This is not about paying people off for safety," said Geller, who has done two books and one video related to the use of safety awards and incentives. "Incentives should provide recognition and motivation for doing better than before. There has to be room for improvement, and you have to define what it will take to get there."

3. What kinds of prizes and gifts should be offered?

Experts offered varying opinions. Professor Townsend, for example, recommended that employers provide cash bonuses for outstanding safety performance. "A safe workplace," he said, "saves the company money. If management can get a bonus for it, employees should share in the economic benefits."

Other experts, including Professor Geller and safety director Eggenschwiller, warn against the use of money. "People will say they want cash, but it isn't special enough," Geller said. "Awards and incentives should be a symbol and a remembrance." That is why, Geller said, many employers have found success in imprinting safety slogans and company logos on plaques, clothing, housewares and outdoor equipment. He also is a proponent of points-based programs that provide awards when certain milestones are reached.

Standard Register facilities, Eggenschwiller said, have used the simplest of trinkets to routinely remind employees about safety. Small bags of bubble gum, for example, were rubber stamped with the slogan "Don't blow it now!" as one facility closed in on a year without a lost-time accident.

Eggenschwiller also reported "getting a lot of mileage out of food," including coffee and doughnuts, lunches and family picnics, to reward safety performance. A banquet, he said, is a great way to recognize safety committee members and other contributors to the safety program.

4. Is competition among individuals/groups good or bad?

Geller is "not a big fan of safety contests," but he said they can work if everyone has an equal chance of winning. He recommended that contests have the potential for more than one winner reaching a goal such as workers trained or job safety analyses conducted. This maintains the motivation even after someone or some group is the first to reach a milestone.

"It's counterproductive to have one or just a few huge winners," said Dan Rost, director of marketing for Chicago-based Stock Yards Packing Co., which provides steaks and other gourmet foods for incentive programs. "People will recognize that their chances aren't that good. They may give up if someone gets way out in front."

Contests can work, Abramis said, as a short-term stimulus for improvement. "If you're trying to get people to do things forever," he said, "a contest is not the way to go. You have to have winners often, and you have to keep running new contests."

5. Is it better to reward employees for individual or group efforts?

On this question, experts like Fromm and Geller voiced significant differences. Geller, for example, recommended that awards be based on individual performance to minimize co-worker peer pressure to not report injuries. He said "everything special that someone does for safety," not just not having an injury, should be part of the awards and incentives equation.

Fromm, on the other hand, advocated group-based programs, especially in teamwork-oriented organizations. Groups as small as work teams and as large as entire divisions and companies should be evaluated for safety performance. This often includes "safety bingo" and points-based programs which continue as long as the group goes without a lost-time accident. Fromm's "Safety Pays" program, for example, is based mostly on departments and facilities being free of significant incidents and maintaining good housekeeping practices.

Abramis recommended using both group- and individual-based awards. He said teamwork is important for long-term process development and continuous improvement. Nonetheless, he pointed out, if employers are seeking innovative solutions and exceptional efforts, individual achievement awards are essential.

"Groups," he said, "tend to be process-oriented and consensus-driven. There aren't many great ideas that come out of teams per se. The greatest scientific ideas of all time came out of individuals' heads. Ultimately, creativity comes from a person."

6. Who should administer the program?

Several respondents recommended that safety committees or other employee groups coordinate the awards and incentives program. According to Eggenschwiller, peers can successfully provide candy, coffee mugs, key chains and other regular installments of positive reinforcement. If management tried to do it, he said, employees may complain about "this cheap company."

"Most of the time, I see safety committees underutilized," Eggenschwiller said. "An incentive program takes a lot of time and effort to determine the criteria, track progress and pick out awards. Give the committee a mission and a budget, and let the members run the program."

Top managers should be directly involved in the incentive program, Eggenschwiller recommended. "Don't just tell them you want their support," he emphasized. "If you ask them for something specific, my experience is they will do it." Specific responsibilities, he said, could include presenting major awards, appearing at special functions, and signing letters of appreciation or thank-you notes.

7. Should incentives be used to kick off new or upgraded safety programs, or should the programs be in place first?

Eggenschwiller believes in using incentives to get people"s attention from the beginning and rewarding them for progress. For example, Standard Register is starting a new driver safety program by offering baseball caps, T-shirts and picnic coolers to its customer engineers who are free of accidents and traffic citations. The program also includes defensive driver training, vehicle inspection sheets and maintenance plans.

At one facility, Standard Register kicked off a renewed emphasis on eye protection by providing new safety eyewear and a T-shirt with the slogan "Four eyes are better than none."

8. What impact do incentives have on injury, near-miss and safety problem reporting?

Some safety and incentive experts believe programs based on the lack of reported injuries can discourage reporting, especially of injuries and illnesses which are cumulative and not noticeable from one day to the next.

Eggenschwiller, on the other hand, said he "challenges the school of thought" that awards and incentives discourage injury reporting. Strong injury reporting policies and accident investigation procedures, he insisted, can counteract any unintended consequences of using awards and incentives. He also emphasized that incentives should not be linked to near-miss reporting. Even a serious injury, he said, should force the program to start over, not kill it.

"Our enemy is lost-time injuries, and one is not the end of the world," he said. "If you have an accident in the second month, you don't want that to ruin the program for the year. You should pick it back up in the next month or quarter."

Geller believes the answer to the injury reporting dilemma is to "focus on the journey, not the destination." Employers can do this by providing small gifts and reminders on the way to a milestone such as one year with no lost-time accidents. At the awards presentation, he said, managers should not focus on reaching the record. Rather, employees should talk about what they had to do throughout the year to reach the mark.

9. How often should employees be rewarded?

This is often a function of budget, but our experts generally recommended that all eligible employees receive something, even if it is just a coffee mug or T-shirt, within a year.

Awarding prizes in a timely fashion connects the process to the reward, sources pointed out. In some cases, Geller said, safe behaviors such as reminding a co-worker about safety precautions or recommending a safety improvement should be rewarded on the spot.

For longer-range efforts such as "safety bingo" and points-based programs, feedback still has to be routine. Some companies, for example, call a safety bingo number daily or every other day until there is a winner. For annual prizes, Fromm suggested, employers can provide monthly "frequent flyer-type statements" to update workers on where they stand.

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