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Safety Matters: What Really Keeps Workers Safe

Incentive versus recognition. In the context of employee safety performance, the distinction between these two concepts has a tendency to get blurred. From my perspective, a classic incentive would be a supervisor telling a worker that if there are no injuries for six months, the supervisor is going to give the worker _______ fill in the blank. That’s the classic. A monetary reward, well-known in advance, as a reward for something not happening.

Here is recognition. The employee is hard at work, the boss walks in and tells the employee he’s noticed that the employee is conducting himself in a manner that reduces risk and injury, tells him to keep up the good work and to show his gratitude that there have been no injuries for a period of time, the boss and the employee have a cup of coffee together.

I am a big fan of recognition and a critic when it comes to incentives. If someone puts their hand into moving equipment you have to wonder why that person did not know they were at risk. The fact is the person probably had a number of reasons for taking the risk, but as an employer, you need to be sure you’re not contributing to that behavior. I believe incentives can drive workers toward risky behavior by sending a message to get the job done at all costs because that’s what is important.

Incentive programs are a cheap way to obtain improved safety results. Safety is reduced to a game and the reward overshadows the fundamental goal of reducing risk in the workplace. Some companies literally play games such as ‘safety bingo’ and the like. If you make it to this point safely, I’m going to give you something. Over time, employees come to see these incentives as part of their compensation, something that is due them and the underlying concept of safety is lost along the way. In addition, this may also lead to a problem with underreporting accidents or safety incidents. If you do not know what is wrong … how can you fix it!

If you want someone to stay safe in a hazardous situation, the last thing you want them to be thinking about is incentives. What you really want them involved in is the overall risk reduction activity at your workplace, everything from working on the resolution of hazardous conditions or at-risk behaviors, to making safety suggestions, conducting risk predictions, and training.  

Safety culture
Recognition of milestones or achievements or thanking someone for doing a good job in a specific context develops a culture of being connected to the organization. This is critical to getting good people to stay.

I don’t think incentives build a safety culture, at least not in the long run. If you’re serious about building a culture within the company and bringing out each worker’s full potential, you need to reach that person at a level that is more complex than simply, ‘you do this and I give you this.’

In the hierarchy of what motivates people, reward is not really all that high. If the fundamental concept is monetary reward to do something safely, you can’t count that it will be done. No matter how small your company is, and how hands-on your leaders are, if you’re worrying about what people are doing when your back is turned, you don’t have a very good culture.

The hallmark of a performing safety culture is people who are passionate about working safely because for them, this is a core value. If you’ve got that, you’re miles ahead. The issue of employee safety has become instilled as a value that a person will hang onto and maintain for the long haul. 

Recognition applies to every organization
Mature organizations, regardless of size, have probably integrated safety into their core values, regardless of the type of industry or the work it does. But perhaps your company is small or new, and you think the chance of injury is remote, or you believe you don’t have the time or the wherewithal to conduct employee recognition for safety. However, the effects of a single injury can be devastating and place a physical and psychological burden on everyone. Try not to think of this as a ‘program’ but as something that you do as a matter of course.

One approach can simply be to send thank-you letters to an employee’s home when they have reached a safety milestone. The letter will convey that you want the employee to understand how much their performance is appreciated and how much it means to the overall company. It also sends the message that it is not within the company’s value system to tolerate workers going home hurt.

Another form is a specific, heart-felt discussion held periodically between supervisor and employee along the lines of, “I’ve noticed that by doing a particular activity, you prevented a serious incident from occurring to you.” Feedback is a mechanism for influencing behavior. The employee gets the positive message, which makes them feel good about themselves and their work and reinforces the employee to do the job safely in the future.

Recognition might also involve asking a few people to collect metrics measuring the safety process within their work group. The group meets regularly to go over the safety metrics which may indicate how many risk reductions, or training hours were completed within a specific period. In addition, the reportable safety incident rate for the group has gone down. This is an excellent opportunity for the group to recognize the individuals who have delivered the results. Again the message is sent, this time by peers, that safety is recognized and appreciated.

If this performance continues, perhaps a coffee cup, jacket, or hard hat with the company’s name is handed out to commemorate the milestone. Almost anything will work so long as the workers don’t know in advance and there is a surprise factor to the recognition. 

Improving health and safety is all about risk reduction becoming a regular behavior with employees and after 30 years, I’ve come to believe that incentives can be a quick fix that do not lead to this behavioral change. 

Anticipating health and safety issues and taking action to prevent them is a long-term and profitable investment for companies. For more information on industrial hygiene and methods for promoting health and safety in the workplace, as well as a listing of industrial hygiene consultants, please visit the American Industrial Hygiene Association web site at www.aiha.org.

Jere Ingram is a certified industrial hygienist, a certified safety professional, and a Fellow of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). He is a member of AIHA’s Occupational Medicine and Safety Committees.

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