For many years, I have listened to wiser folks say that you should not give rewards for good safety performance. Usually, they have one or both of two reasons. The first reason is that you should not reward people for doing what they are supposed to do. Second, employees will conceal an accident or injury to avoid losing the reward.

I do not buy either. Working safely needs to be a condition of employment. Good performance should be rewarded. The reward, when properly sized, can be a very positive incentive. What is the smallest reward that you could give someone that does not require a purchase? Praise. A pat on the back. An “attaboy” or “attagirl.” Say “thank you.” Take time to recognize the accomplishments made, no matter how small. If time goes on and you want to scale it up, cookies and milk, or even Pepsi and pizza.

Thank you

Several years ago, I started asking seminar participants if they had managed to go a full year in their departments without a lost time accident. Many said yes. But then I followed up by asking if the department manager or supervisor had said anything to acknowledge this important contribution to the organization’s success. Almost everyone said no.

I have seen supervisors with 10-25 years worth of experience apologize to colleagues on the spot as they realize that they had missed an opportunity, or many opportunities to encourage, congratulate, or acknowledge good safety performance.

What about reason number two? Stating that employees will attempt to hide or suppress an accident in order to avoid losing said reward. I think it is really unlikely that employees are going to avoid reporting accidents or injuries just to hear their supervisor or department head say “thank you,” and receive a pat on the back.

The secret, (if there is any) would be to make the reward appropriately sized. And, it does not hurt to make the penalty for not reporting an incident ten times worse than the penalty for having an accident.

I worked for four years at the Dow Chemical New England Central Research Laboratory. We had a $10,000 lobster clambake dinner for employees, their spouses, and significant others to celebrate a year free of lost time accidents. When I mentioned what Dow had done to a group of supervisors from a company in North Carolina one of them said “That could never happen here. They would never spend that kind of money.”

The president of the company was included in this group. I turned to him and asked, “How would you like to trade last years’ $500,000 workers’ compensation premium for a $10,000 lobster clambake dinner?” Without hesitation, he replied, “Try me!”

I think rewards and incentives make good sense, good safety, and good business. They are on my short list of the top five items for an effective safety program.

Find the appropriately sized rewards for your department.

Jim Kaufman, Ph.D.