One of the great debates in workplace safety today is the role of incentives.

Two philosophies seem to exist. One says that workers will not work safe unless employers give them incentives to do so. The other says that incentives should not be required for workers to do their jobs without injury.

Safety and operational supervisors, managers and directors who are working hard to find a way to focus employees on reducing injuries fuel the debate.

The biggest problem with safety-incentive programs is that they do not work the way people expect them. Programs that reward employees with monetary or tangible rewards for an expected level of performance are dangerous when it comes to safety. They tend to cause underreporting, particularly when the performance is related to lagging indicators like reduced incidents or severity rates.


People tend to focus on the reward rather than the outcome of going home every day without an injury. Underreporting causes information to be buried, which can lead to dangerous behaviors or hazardous situations not being properly addressed.

Sure, there are examples of how incentive programs have helped organizations turn their safety performance from negative to positive. This may be the case for the short term, but eventually, safety incentive programs become:

3 Ineffective. They lose their appeal to employees and it becomes too much work to keep up with the required paperwork.

3 Entitlements. Employees come to expect the incentive no matter what the outcomes are, particularly when monetary rewards are involved.

3 Routine. When the program remains the same year after year, people don’t really pay attention to the expectations and the rewards.

3 Punitive. When group rewards are part of the program, employees can be very punitive to one another when an incident occurs that “messes up” the reward.

3 Irrelevant. Often employees do not see why their company leaders think they have to pay them to work safe. Isn’t safe work part of the job?

Think about other problems you’ve seen in your own company. What’s going on with your incentive program - if you have one? It may be time to consider a different approach.

Recognition vs. rewards

Because safety-incentive programs can become routine, ineffective and irrelevant with the passing of time, consider other ways to encourage safe work habits.

Companies that train and encourage leaders to recognize safe behavior have excellent safety cultures. Rather than the prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach in most safety-incentive programs, recognition is much more personal. Leaders who are deeply involved in the safety-management process can have the most influence. Recognition goes a long way to motivate workers.

Rather than try to “buy” employees’ commitment to safety with incentive programs, consider these techniques to engage everyone to take personal responsibility for safety:

Make safety a core value. Safety needs to be as important to your organization as production and profits. Let employees know that no job is so important that it should be done at personal risk. Start every meeting with an update from a safety contact.

Commit management to worker safety. When executives, managers and supervisors are actively engaged in the organization’s safety efforts, employees will notice. Leaders can demonstrate their commitment by following the company’s safe-work procedures, listening to and acting on employees’ concerns and actively participating in safety meetings.

Involve employees in the safety process. Encourage employees to take part in making your workplace safe by including them in committees, inspections, accident investigations, and safety-suggestion programs. Give them time to participate during their regular work hours and recognize their efforts. And find out what motivates them.

Set high expectations for behavior. Research shows that employees will usually work hard to meet their managers’ and supervisors’ expectations. Clearly state expectations that everyone will follow safety procedures and wear appropriate protective equipment. Managers and supervisors should also expect employees to identify, control and report all hazards found in the workplace.

Allow employees to set their own goals. Most incentive programs develop around corporate safety objectives, but employees may resist the proclamations of executives or managers, especially if the workers consider management to be out of touch with their day-to-day experiences. However, employees will respond more positively to setting their own goals. Give them the autonomy to do this and encourage them to make it a personal aim to go home each day without injury.

Invest in motivation, not incentives

Even the most creative incentive program won’t get the result wanted - a workplace where nobody gets hurt. Safety-incentive programs take money out of the company’s bottom line without a significant or sustainable return on your investment. So instead, make motivation a priority for executives, managers and supervisors. Get them to commit to investing their time and effort to improving their safety and encourage workers to do the same. That way, each individual becomes responsible, not only for his or her own safety, but also for that of everyone in the organization. That way, more people will go home every day without injury.

Carl Potter is a certified safety professional and certified management consultant. Deb Potter has a doctorate in organization management and business. They have worked with hazardous industries for more than 44 years. They work closely with many large corporations as speakers and consultants. For more information, contact them through Potter and Associates,, or (800) 259-6209.