The Truth about Safety Incentive Programs

Published: Nov 28, 2018
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Carl Potter, CSP, CMC and Deb Potter, Ph.D., CMC

In spite of the millions of dollars companies spend every year on safety incentive programs, research shows that injuries continue to occur. In fact, ironically, many programs actually demotivate employees, at best yielding diminishing returns over time.

Programs that Don’t Work

Does your organization use any of the following ineffective safety incentive programs?

  • Playing Lotto. In some companies, the names of employees who work without a recordable injury are entered into a lottery-type drawing for great prizes, like exotic vacations or a new pick-up truck. The result is one very happy winner and a lot of disappointed losers. Talk about demotivating…
  •  You can’t bank on it.  Another popular incentive program is similar to giving every employee a checkbook full of withdrawals but no deposits. Each worker begins the year with a “safety fund.” Every time a recordable injury occurs to anyone in the company, a specific amount is subtracted from every employee’s “account.” At the end of the year, employees receive the remaining balance as a bonus. As a result, employees look for targets to blame—often their co-workers or management—as their bonuses decrease. Because they’re usually busy pointing fingers at others, employees working under this kind of incentive system rarely pause to consider what their own role could be in the effort to reduce injuries.
  • Racking up points. Sometimes companies dole out incentives based on a points system. Employees accumulate points by attending safety meetings, serving on safety committees, successfully completing audits, submitting near-miss reports, etc. Management deducts points for injuries or vehicle incidents. Employees receive monetary rewards based on their accumulated points. The problem with this system is that employees often feel they have no control over the outcome. As a result, employees and supervisors tend to under-report or play games with the numbers, so no one trusts the outcome.

Not surprisingly, most organizations that have adopted these and other forms of safety incentive programs find that the results are disappointing. To make matters worse, the programs can be costly and, in the long run, do not typically result in a reduction of injury rates.

Successful Safety Initiatives

Rather than attempting to “buy” your employees’ commitment to safety, consider the following techniques, which are more likely to encourage employees to take personal responsibility for safety:

  1. Make safety a core value. Safety has to be as important to your organization as production and profits are. Let employees know that no job is so important that it should be done at personal risk. Start every meeting with an update from a safety contact.
  2. Commit management to worker safety. When executives, managers and supervisors are actively engaged in the organization’s safety efforts, employees notice. Leaders can demonstrate their commitment to safety by following the company’s safe work procedures, listening to and acting upon employees’ concerns and participating in safety meetings.
  3. Involve employees in the safety process. Encourage employees to take part in making their workplace safe by including them in safety committees, inspections, accident investigations and safety suggestion programs. Allow them to participate during their regular work hours; then recognize their efforts.
  4. Set high expectations for safe behavior. Research shows that employees will usually work hard to meet their managers’ and supervisors’ expectations, so safe behavior should be prominent in lists of expectations. Make it clear that everyone must follow safety procedures and wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Managers and supervisors should also expect employees to identify, control and report all hazards found in the workplace.
  5. Allow employees to set their own goals. Most incentive programs are formulated by executives or managers, since they are developed around corporate safety objectives. Employees may resist the guidelines, especially if they consider management to be out of touch with the day-to-day experiences of the rank and file. Employees will respond more positively if they are empowered to set their own safety goals. Give them the autonomy to do this and encourage them to make it a personal aim to go home each day without injury.

Invest in Motivation, Not Incentives
Individual responsibility for one’s own fate is a great motivator. So think about getting rid of those expensive, low ROI incentive safety programs. Instead make sure that executives, managers and supervisors are committed to maintaining the highest level of safety. Management must make safety a priority and encourage workers to do the same. The result? Each individual will become responsible not only for his or her own safety, but also for that of everyone in the organization.

About the Author(s)

Carl Potter, CSP, CMC and Deb Potter, Ph.D., CMC have worked with hazardous industries for a combined total of more than 44 years. They are co-authors of the best-selling book Who Is Responsible for Safety? Their latest book is Zero! Responsible Safety Management by Design. For more information, visit or call 1-800-259-6209.