Building a Complete Safety Incentive Program

Merchandise alone is not the real incentive!
By Buck Peavey

Building a Complete Incentive Program
It’s 4:00 on Friday afternoon. Your employee is on the assembly line and 100 units behind schedule. It’s one hour away from “Miller Time,” and tonight he must be out by 5:00. Slip into these shoes and think about this: What would be going through your head?

Would it be: “I have one hour left and three hours of work to finish. But I’d better take it slow, because if I have an accident I can kiss that toaster or clock radio goodbye.” Or, “I have one hour left and if I pick up the pace and really fly, maybe I’ll get home by 5:30.”

As I am sure you know, the employee who thinks the latter is much easier to find, and I think there are a few obvious reasons why.

First, at 4:00 p.m. on any day the incentive of winning a toaster or clock radio is easy to forget. Especially if you haven’t been reminded about them for three months. (I have a tough time remembering my anniversary unless my wife reminds me at least a couple of times.) Second, let’s face it…a toaster, clock radio, logo’d jacket, or steak dinner will never motivate a behavioral change every day, 365 days a year. I don’t care what the demographic group is; merchandise alone is not a reliable way to motivate employees to work safety. Unless, of course, you are offering a big screen TV or Turbo Porsche.

Merchandise attached to a fun campaign, with criteria focusing on prevention of accidents, will get you the results you need.

Don’t get me wrong; the lure of a merchandise award is a great motivator. Most all of our clients receive better results from merchandise than from cash or the equivalent. But the merchandise is most effective when used as a piece of a more comprehensive program campaign that includes the following three criteria.

Friendly Reminders

The key to reducing accidents in the workplace is not only to reward, but to remind. Constantly. A successful program includes constant positive reinforcement. Employees must play an active part in the program, on a weekly basis.

A division of RYDER Truck learned the value of a reminder. The district safety manager had a lofty goal, to reduce accidents by 50 percent from the previous year. He wanted to do this by significantly boosting the operation’s overall safety awareness. The previous year, RYDER had offered a merchandise award quarterly to employees who were not involved in an accident or safety violation. This time around, RYDER changed its plan. The new program issued game cards weekly. The game cards contained points which employees traded, collected, and later redeemed for a merchandise award of their choice offered in a catalog.

The constant reminder worked. A testimonial letter from the district safety manager states, “We were able to increase safety awareness by 1000!… simply by awarding deserving employees on a weekly basis instead of quarterly.” RYDER subsequently reduced its accidents by more than 58 percent from the previous year.

Create An Environment

An effective program must also create an environment for its employees. An environment gets people talking, which in turn encourages participation. To create an environment you must use or develop a program that has a built-in communications campaign. This should include a weekly or monthly update of your program that informs everyone of who received awards.

Too many companies hand out awards to employees for simply not having an accident

Place posters around the workplace to serve as a constant reminder to your employees. If a program is structured with an awarding catalyst, such as a weekly issuance of game cards, try boosting internal communication by adding teamwork to the weekly criteria. When employees get together and exchange game cards, that in itself builds enthusiasm and awareness of your program. Following are two examples of companies that saw results by focusing on their environment.

Borg-Warner Automotive ran the weekly game card program utilizing fun and unique posters to promote its incentive campaign. When employees redeemed their cards for merchandise awards in the program catalog, their name and what they won were displayed on an electronic board for everyone to see. The constant recognition made a difference. Their department manager said, “The program created much more safety awareness and really boosted the enthusiasm for the entire Borg-Warner team.” Borg-Warner’s recordable injuries to date have decreased by almost 40 percent from last year.

The Paper Division at Boise Cascade also learned that creating an environment pays big dividends. Boise’s team believes safety incentive programs that utilize a campaign approach parallel to merchandise can enhance a solid safety program. Their program was based on employee involvement and encouraged workers and their supervisors to trade points. This created a fun camaraderie between the two groups. The program also incorporated posters, flyers, bulletin board announcements, and a grand prize. Boise Cascade ended the year with a 27.5 percent decrease in recordable injuries and the best incident rate in division history.

Confront the Issue of Accident Prevention

Too many companies hand out awards to employees for simply not having an accident. Think about it: There aren’t many people who want to cut their hand, get hit in the head, or cut off a toe. Most accidents are just that, an accident. Design your program to focus on the behavioral issues that cause accidents in the first place.

Give employees the knowledge and tools needed to prevent accidents. Educate them on their equipment. Be proactive and avoid potential accidents before they have a chance to happen.

As a rule of thumb, successful programs should reward employees for things like:

• wearing eye protection
• wearing the proper safety apparel at all times
• using the right techniques
• simply following the correct safety procedures all of the time
• scoring high marks on a safety education/training quiz

A major division of International Paper made education a top priority. The company’s behavioral management team leader explained his situation this way: “In the past, safety at the plant level was reactive instead of proactive. Last year, we suffered from an incident rate of 3.85.” International Paper then introduced a safety program with a behavior-based element. When an employee worked one month without a recordable injury, he/she received a game card. They would also receive a game card for attending a monthly safety meeting. Game cards were given to employees who performed four safety observations each month, conducted a BJA (Behavioral Job Analysis), and did one extracurricular activity.

Activities included conducting a pre-shift meeting, writing a BJA, performing a knowledge-based observation on HazCom, writing improved internal safety procedures, and conducting appropriate audits. International Paper experienced great success by aiming its incentive program in a proactive direction. The employee participation rose fivefold. “Employees took ownership of all prevention-based activities,” their team leader stated. “The biggest success, however, is the decrease of recordable injuries.” By aiming the program in this direction, International Paper dramatically improved its incident rate, recording its lowest accident rate ever.


If all you are after is a complete safety incentive program that gives out free stuff, then keep on motivating your employees with merchandise alone. But if you realize that your program can and should do more than that, then remember these three things: Remind, Create, and Confront. In order for a program to be successful, it needs to have these three in balance.

If all you are after is a safety program that gives out free stuff, then keep on motivating your employees with merchandise alone.

Keep in mind that the merchandise is important because it serves as the carrot; the weekly campaign is the catalyst that brings the carrot closer. Remind your employees that they are in the game. Create an environment that motivates your people to play. Confront accidents before they happen. If you can achieve a healthy balance of these three criteria in your program, you will probably find that your employees are always out safe by “Miller Time” while keeping productivity at an all-time high.

Now go home – it’s 5:00!

Reprint from Occupational Health & Safety Magazine.