Incentives: Is Behavior the Key to an Effective Program?

March 1, 2010
One effective approach to recognizing employees is to use incentives to reinforce defined safety behaviors.

Many employers implement safety incentive programs as they seek to recognize and reward employees for practicing safe and healthful work practices. While incentives are popular, they aren't always effective. Simply rewarding employees to “work safely” or to “not get injured” doesn't address the actual cause of injuries.

How is an employee supposed to know what, if anything, he needs to change? A more effective approach may be to provide incentives based on defined behaviors. Motivating, recognizing and rewarding those behaviors likely will yield desired safety results.

Most safety incentive programs reward workers for “working safely” over a given period of time. This commonly is associated with a particular outcome such as “working a year without getting hurt” or similar goal. Consequently, employees work toward that result.

If motivated by cash incentives or peer pressure not to “ruin” the company's safety record, employees may use any strategy to achieve the desired result, including withholding injury reports. This can lead to more severe injuries in the future. An employee may choose to ignore a minor injury until it becomes so severe that he or she has no choice but to report it.

In these instances, the actual number of injuries in the workplace may decline, but the severity of each reported injury increases, and becomes much more costly.


On the other hand, if an incentive program rewards workers for using safe work procedures and practices or participating in safety activities, the behavior is recognized before an accident occurs. This helps prevent accidents. The key is to motivate desired behavior that proactively promotes and fosters safety at your company.

There are various motivational influences in the workplace that can have dramatic effects on an employee's behavior and may ultimately determine whether an employee works in a safe or unsafe manner. Most employees desire acceptance, self-respect and recognition. If these needs have not been met, an employee's primary focus might be on meeting these requirements first; working safely will be secondary.

Recognition has the effect of motivating desired behaviors. We do what we do because of consequences. If a behavior yields desired results, we'll likely do it again. However, if it yields undesired results, we'll likely think twice and avoid that behavior in the future.

As such, rewards must be meaningful enough to motivate employees.


It's not the nature of the reward that is most important. Again, what is most important is that appropriate behavior is recognized in a meaningful way. This is done by making the recognition timely (immediate), consistent and certain, significant and sincere.

Timely — Does recognition occur soon after the performance? If rewarded too late, the worker may not make the connection between the safe behavior and the reward. By rewarding employees soon after the performance, it reinforces the desired behavior.

Consistent and certain — Are employees certain they will be recognized for safety performance? Be sure to consistently enforce policies and procedures and to reward and recognize in line with established incentive program guidelines. If an employee feels like he or she can get away with unsafe acts because no one will notice, the employee may also feel like his or her safe behaviors or participation will be unnoticed and ultimately not rewarded.

Significant — Are recognition and rewards considered significant/meaningful to employees? Ask supervisors, or even the employees themselves, for input. What will motivate workers? Find out, and then make an effort to provide rewards and recognition that you know the employee will strive for.

Sincere — Are the motives for recognition and rewards perceived as sincere? Often, and perhaps more so in today's economic climate, workers are cynical and might suspect underlying motives for a safety incentive program and the “so-called” rewards associated with them. Workers may feel as though you are trying to get them to work harder for the same amount — with little benefit to them. As such, the overall benefits of an incentive program (e.g., a safe workplace) need to be conveyed to employees.

Also, when managers and supervisors recognize employees in a sincere manner, workers will perceive the act as leadership. Consequently, this will help improve the working relationship between labor and management. This partnership is a necessary element for an effective safety and health management program.


Ways to reward desired behaviors are varied and many, but generally can be categorized as either extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic rewards are tangible such as bonuses, pins, cups, plaques, certificates, lunches, etc. These often are used as part of a strategy to develop internal rewards or motivation.

For example, to get kids to read, teachers and parents often use a reward system during which the child receives a reward for time spent reading. This is positive reinforcement of a desired behavior. Over time, fewer rewards are offered, but many kids will choose to read and find that they enjoy it.

The reason for this is that the reward is intrinsic. Intrinsic rewards are internal and intangible. They are how we reward ourselves. The results can include improved self-esteem, increased sense of purpose, higher credibility, feeling of accomplishment, etc.

Is it the tangible reward itself or the underlying meaning that motivates your employees the most? If they're like most people, a sincere “thanks” offers an intrinsic reward that results in real motivation to continue the behavior. It makes us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

Consider the example of rewarding kids for reading and think about what behaviors you want to increase in the workplace. Can the initial use of extrinsic, tangible rewards eventually lead to intrinsic rewards in a similar way? Yes, and this can be accomplished by using a variety of incentives.


Safety slogans — Reinforcing the same topics in the same way can make safety boring. This easily can cause employees to stop paying attention to your message and become complacent. To make safety new again, have employees create safety slogans.

Safety slogans are extremely popular. The possibilities are infinite and usually do not require employees to have special knowledge about safety. Safety slogans promote proactive behaviors by encouraging employees to think about safe work practices and ways of preventing accidents in the workplace.

Even if they don't submit an idea, your employees might spend a little extra time contemplating the importance of safety.

Point-based system — In a point-based incentive system, the emphasis is not placed on the occurrence of an injury. While this still may be a factor, the primary criteria for awarding points should be based on proactive safety behavior. For example, an employee might get one point for being injury-free, three points for making a safety suggestion, five points for conducting a safety inspection, five points for attending a safety talk, etc.

Rewarding employees for a wide variety of safety activities will force you to spread the points around. This ensures that as many employees as possible actively are engaged in the safety and health management program. A company cannot be successful in its safety and health efforts without employee involvement.

Safety bucks — Issuing safety bucks is a common way to reward safety efforts and a popular approach with employees. Make sure, however, that they are awarded to employees for desired safety behavior. Have supervisors carry safety bucks and give them to employees when they do something impressive such as:

  • Warn a coworker about hazards or hazardous behavior;
  • Identify a hazard;
  • Immediately report an injury; or
  • Make a suggestion that prevents injuries.

By rewarding employees soon after the performance, it reinforces the desired behavior. This then will motivate employees to become more aware, interested and involved in uncovering unsafe work conditions and practices.

Although rewards are an integral part of a safety incentive program, it is essential to focus more on the behaviors you're promoting than on the rewards themselves. Remember, you want to have a safety incentive program and not a safety reward program.

Jennifer Stroschein joined J. J. Keller & Associates Inc. in 1998 with a BA in environmental studies and biology and expertise in regulatory compliance with federal regulations and standards. As the editor of J.J. Keller's publication Workplace Safety, she is responsible for providing timely, accurate information and technical support to workplace safety professionals regarding a variety of issues. Her areas of specialty include safety incentive programs, audits and inspections, walk-working surfaces and pandemic preparedness.

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