Are Safety Incentive Programs Counterproductive?

By Ron Ragain Apr 1, 2015
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One of the contextual aspects of many workplaces is a safety incentive program designed to motivate employees to improve their safety performance. Historically the “safety bonus” has been contingent on not having any lost time injuries on the team during a specified period of time. The idea is to provide an extrinsic reward for safe performance that will increase the likelihood of safe behavior so that accidents will be reduced or eliminated.

What we really want is people working for us who are highly intrinsically motivated and not in need of a lot of extrinsic “push” to perform. Safety incentive programs are completely based on the notion of extrinsic push. So do they work?

We know from research dating back to the 1960s that the introduction of an extrinsic reward for engaging in an activity that is already driven intrinsically will reduce the desire to engage in that activity when the reward is removed. In other words, extrinsic reward can have the consequence of reducing intrinsic motivation. We also know that financial incentives can have perverse and unintended consequences. It is well known that safety incentive programs can have the unintended consequence of underreporting of incidents and even injuries. Peer pressure to keep the incident quiet so that the team won’t lose its safety bonus happens in many organizations. This not only leads to reduced information about why incidents are occurring, but it also decreases management’s ability to improve unsafe conditions, resulting in similar incidents becoming more likely in the future.

Because of this, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has determined that safety incentive programs based on incident frequency must be eliminated because of these unintended consequences. Their suggestion is that safety bonuses should be contingent on upstream activities such as participation in safety improvement efforts like safety meetings, training, etc. On a side note, in some organizations, the production incentive program is in direct conflict with the safety incentive program so that production outweighs safety from a financial perspective. When this happens production speed can interfere with focus on safety and incidents become more likely.

Safety incentive programs are not only unnecessary, but potentially counterproductive. Capitalizing on the already present intrinsic motivation to be safe and creating an organizational culture that fosters that motivation to work together as a team to keep each other safe is much more positive and effective than the addition of the extrinsic incentive of money for safety.

Management should take the money budgeted for the safety incentive program and give pay increases while simultaneously examining and improving organizational context to help keep employees safe.

Ron Ragain is co-founder and executive director of The RAD Group, a safety and organizational performance consultancy. Copyright 2015 © The RAD Group. All rights reserved.​

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