A rewarding safety program

Monday, 14 August, 2006

An incentive program can be just the thing to boost a flagging safety program. But the emphasis shouldn't be just on 'what' to reward employees with.

The goal of implementing a safety incentive program seems clear cut. And yet programs can be worlds apart in terms of goals and rewards. For example, one company may offer a steak dinner to employees who go for a quarter with no lost time injuries while another offers cash, and yet another offers gift certificates to Myer.

With such an array of options to choose from, the first question is usually 'what incentives will work for my company?'.

Although not necessarily the most important question, it is a powerful one. It's also crucial to ask the 'how' questions, such as 'what behaviours will be rewarded?'. The answers to this will reveal the processes that drive successful incentive programs.

Everything from bananas to boats

An incentive could be any item that people deem valuable. Bob Nelson illustrates this in his book 1001 Ways to Reward Employees. He relates a situation that occurred at the Hewlett-Packard Company.

A team of workers had been plagued with a problem for weeks. An engineer came across the solution to the problem and overcome with enthusiasm, he burst into his manager's office and blurted it out. Thrilled by this idea, the manager offered the only reward he could find at the moment - a banana left over from his lunch. The incident started a trend, and the Golden Banana Award is now a coveted employee prize.

Cash awards are an obvious choice for incentives, and some safety managers also use gifts such as CD players, electronics, pens, keychains and fishing boats. For some incentives the price tag can run into five figures. Yet others, such as a compliment or a pat on the back, cost you nothing.

Michael LeBoeuf, a management consultant, lists 10 basic categories of employee incentives. Besides money, these include: recognition, time off, stock ownership, special assignments, advancement, increased autonomy, training and education, parties and other fun activities and prizes.

Set goals

Companies that are successful with incentive programs have learned to set goals carefully, knowing that the way a goal is worded may lead to different results.

Raising safety performance is the obvious purpose of incentive programs. Given that overall goal, employees can receive incentives based on different criteria, such as days without recordable accidents, months without lost-time injuries and decreases in workers compensation claims.

Many firms now also choose to reward safe behaviours, as part of the growing trend towards behavioural safety techniques. Bill Sims Jr is president of The Bill Sims Company, a company specialising in employee incentive and recognition programs. "In the program focused on proactive behaviour, companies reward a number of 'upstream behaviours' that ultimately produce a good safety record," he says.

"Some of these behaviours are making safety suggestions, attending safety meetings and assisting inspections. These programs produce solid results in long-term safety improvement. For example, Olin Chemical originally reported it had only 60% attendance at safety meetings. In the first month of its incentive program, the figure jumped to 100%."

Sims suggests promoting safety awareness, generating safety suggestions and recognising employees for safe behaviour as top priority in an incentive program. The emphasis is on the rules of the program and how that motivates people rather than on the gift awards. The gift award is certainly the catalyst, but most of the emphasis is on how the program works to build teamwork and motivation.

One basic choice is between change or maintenance. Some companies may want to maintain safety records that are consistently excellent, while others strive to cut down on losses due to injuries and accidents.

One goal that fits in almost any case is that of raising safety awareness. An incentive program can work simply by forcing people to pay attention. For example, the use of 'close call' forms to report situations on the plant floor that could lead to recordable accidents and injuries. With an incentive program in place, there is a reason for employees to pay attention, because they're going to get something back for noticing.

Get a 'bang' for the incentive buck

It's commonly assumed that an extra $25, $50 or $100 added to an employee's pay will be the strongest incentive for employees. In reality, that bonus can quickly vanish in taxes or mundane expenses.

Many successful programs rely on low-cost gifts with high perceived value for this very reason. Sims says gifts that reinforce corporate identity can also spark high interest. For example, a trucking firm that transports new cars centred its program on a one-of-a-kind jacket imprinted with a special crest. To win the jacket, employees had to drive for three months without an accident.

"On the last day of the contest, one driver backed his truck into a light pole and damaged the back window of a new car," Sims said. "He asked if he could buy that car. He didn't want to lose out and be the only guy at his terminal without a jacket."

A related issue is how to distribute incentives. Sims advises against contests that reward only a few people and reinforce the view that safety is a matter of chance or luck.

Sustain the incentive

A willingness to experiment and learn by trial and error is involved in creating a successful incentive program.

Consistency and follow-through are also key. You can't start an incentive program and then walk away and expect it to run itself. You have to have safety meetings and give away incentives every month.

Programs work when employee suggestions are implemented to correct safety problems as they happen. Nelson found that incentive programs work when they tap into the reward that employees favour the most - an immediate recognition by their manager of a job well done.

Finally, incentive programs should be changed periodically so that they stay fresh. Even a minor change such as a new gift item may be enough to sustain interest.

"Raising safety performance is the obvious purpose of incentive programs. Given that overall goal, employees can receive incentives based on different criteria, such as: days without recordable accidents, months without lost-time injuries and decreases in workers compensation claims."

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