A New Take on Safety Incentive Programs

13 December 2012

Using Your Inspection Data to Improve Safety Performance through a Leading Indicator Safety Incentives Program

What comes to mind when you hear the term “safety incentives”?  Pizza parties held after 30 days worked without an injury?  Prizes raffled off after six weeks without a lost-time incident?  Maybe you’ve even run an incentives program in the past and have had direct experiences with the benefits and challenges of implementing such programs.

These days, support for incentive programs is mixed.  Some argue that incentive programs, especially those based on lagging indicators of safety (e.g. injury rates or counts), lead to a decrease in injury reporting – not actual injuries.  Others are more optimistic about the programs, noting that they can help to improve workplace safety and that rewards can serve to increase morale, even if just for a short period of time.

As an occupational health and safety researcher, I want to help answer the question of whether safety incentive programs are effective in improving working conditions and injury rates. I’m interested, however, in safety incentive programs based on leading indicators of workplace safety, which are recorded before an incident occurs. My research team and I developed a novel safety incentive program (called B-SAFE: Building Safety for Everyone) that rewards based on measures of workplace safety recorded before an incident occurs, not lagging, post-incident measures.  Our program relies on leading indicators of safety such as safety inspections, like those entered into SafetyNet, to evaluate the safety on-site and determine whether or not workers should receive a reward.

Yet before we could implement the program on worksites, we needed to determine what level of safety should be rewarded.  Ideally, a program would reward the site only when all of the observations are safe (i.e. 100% safe).  However, this is an unrealistic goal and would likely result in a program where workers are never rewarded and as such, have less motivation to change unsafe work practices.  Conversely, a threshold that is too low might result in workers easily achieving the reward each month, causing them to see no reason to continuously improve safety-related behavior. A reward threshold should feel attainable to all workers on-site, but it should also be competitive enough to encourage improvements in safety-behavior.

What is Considered “Safe” enough to Reward in a Leading Indicator Incentive Program?

To answer this question, our team evaluated multiple approaches to determining the numerical value of a safety inspection score that should be used in an employee safety incentive program to active a reward.  We examined the effect of different reward thresholds by using safety inspection data collected over a 19-month period at 65 Harvard University-owned construction projects.  We grouped this data together in five different ways: owner, general contractor, project, trade, or subcontractor.  We calculated the monthly cumulative safety inspection score for each of the groupings and selected the median value as the reward threshold.

We then applied the five thresholds to data from a completed Harvard-owned construction project in order to calculate what the frequency and distribution of rewards would look like in a monthly safety incentive program.  Each approach was then evaluated qualitatively for consistency, competitiveness, attainability, and fairness.

Categorizing inspection data by owner resulted in a threshold score of 96.3% and met all of our qualitative evaluation goals.  In this simulation, the reward frequency would have been approximately 33%, making it a competitive, yet attainable.  Additionally, the site was evaluated as a whole to ensure that all workers were treated equally, and the threshold value remained the same throughout the duration of the project.

Using this Method at Your Own Site

As a site owner or general contractor, you can adapt this process of selecting a reward threshold when establishing a leading indicator based safety incentive program on your worksite.  Here’s how:

  1. Collect safety inspection data from a program such as SafetyNet that has been generated from your previous projects within the last year and a half.
  2. Generate cumulative monthly safety performance scores (percent of safe observations from the total observations) based on the inspections for all of projects.
  3. List the monthly safety performance scores from lowest to highest, and select the middle value.  That’s your threshold.
  4. Continue your normal safety inspection process and generate a cumulative worksite safety performance score at the end of each month.
  5. If this value is at or above the threshold, recognize the worker’s achievements with a reward.  Reset the monthly cycle and re-evaluate the site at the end of the following month.

What is the Effect of Leading Indicator Incentive Programs on  Injuries?

This study is part of an effort by our research group to evaluate the  true impact of safety incentive programs on work-related injury and  safety culture.  We are currently collecting data on safety inspections,  injury rates, and worker perceptions of safety culture on worksites in  the Boston area with and without a leading indicator-based safety  incentive program.  This is the first study to evaluate the effectiveness  of such a program on multiple sites.  Anecdotally, the results from our first year of data collection indicate a positive impact of the safety incentive program.  Safety managers on sites with the program indicated higher levels of teamwork and employees noted the increased awareness around the importance of safe work practices.

Additional Information

More information on the threshold determination process can be found here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0925753512001531.  This project is funded by CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training.  A project description and abstract can be found on their website at: http://www.cpwr.com/abstracts/2009-2014_jdennerlein.html.

Emily Sparer

Emily Sparer is a doctoral student in Ergonomics and Safety at the Harvard School of Public Health. Her research focuses on the connections between organizational programs and policies, safety climate, and work-related injury in the construction industry. Emily holds a BA in Environmental Science from Barnard College and an MS in Occupational Hygiene from Harvard University.

  • Mike

    Safety is EXPECTED in an employees daily job.
    I do NOT pay EXTRA for them to be safe and follow the rules.

    Theoretical research is one thing…..
    REAL WORLD EXPERIENCE is another….. as it is the REAL WORLD……

    Safety incentive programs are merely a short term bandaid to a much deeper underlying problem……..been saying that for 40 years….and never been proven wrong yet…….

  • This comment came to the author directly:

    I suggest using the term “recognition” program when dealing with leading indicators — to distinguish from “incentive” programs which are lagging indicator based.

    In addition, incentive programs usually deal in cash or scratch-off tickets and not necessarily in communication.

    Can you clarify how your program differs from these common assumptions?

  • Emily Sparer


    Thanks for your comments – you raise some great points. Our program’s main goal is to provide an infrastructure that encourages safety communication between management and workers, through regular feedback on safety performance (as measured through the safety inspections). The program also recognizes safe work practices by providing periodic rewards if the site safety performance score exceeds a certain value at the end of the month. So far, the sites on which we have run the program have exhibited high levels of teamwork and safety awareness, and the communication between workers and management has been strong. As we move forward with the program evaluation, we will be providing more details on the implementation and the results.

  • Emily Sparer

    Thanks for the comment about using the term “safety recognition” instead of safety incentive. We have actually made this change and currently describe the program as a safety communication and recognition program, instead of a safety incentive program. Our preliminary findings show that the key to the program is that it provides an infrastructure for communicating safety feedback and recognizing safe work practices. The “incentive” is just one of the methods of providing safety performance feedback in the program. Future posts will go into more of the program elements, as well as our study findings.

  • I agree with the adverse comments stated.
    For those working in fixed sites/buiding etc it might meet the the very small work group that is just one crew. Or a very small company.
    But in the REAL world of Highway/street construction,,,,,
    What are you smoking.
    These companies are more worried about Production. Or how to keep accidents off the books. Example””””” sending employee to company doctor and no accident report filed. I personnaly know this to be FACT. Company paying all bills, etc.

    Of failure to have mixed langues working together but CANNOT COMMUNICATE with the public much less their own coworkers.
    Some of these people are directly responsible for PUBLIC SAFETY.
    THE LIST IS LONG, the game is keeping cost down and sliding by what ever means they can TILL CAUGHT.

    Once again a Degreed, Desk bound, College Educated, Book Smart person speaking, BUT not having 5 or more years in the REAL World of field work before spouting the Book or the Studies Support.

    GET a real income earning in the field without your degree and see the real world up close and personnal.

    It will be LIFE EDCATIONAL, then write your paper again with realworld education in your References…..

    It would sure help us to have a better understanding of being ” If you donot like this there are others that would jump at a chance to have a JOB your choice.”

    And you answer to that would be?( of course consider most live paycheck to paycheck What choice do they have?)

  • Warren,

    With all due respect, I have worked in the real world and I endorse the message. This article, and the concepts within, are valuable, in my honest opinion. There are those that disagree on the incentive part (giving a gift), but the concept of providing feedback and improving communication as it relates to safety is spot on.

    All of the examples that you cited are in dire need of such a program. If you state you have real world experience as a safety professional, then how would you improve safety in these situations?

  • Mike,
    I think you majorly missed the point. This is not about paying people to be safe and follow the rules. This is about creating awareness, promoting safety over production, it’s about choice. At the end-of-the-day, people take short cuts because of a multitude of reasons. These are not necessarily associated with laziness. Rather, when, for example, they can get the work done faster without bulky gloves, or the gloves are too hot and sweaty, they often sacrifice leading safety behaviors for lagging outcomes (like completion on time). The use of the recognition program promotes a culture of safety. It sends a message to all that safety is truly first. And when it comes to choice, the fact that an incentive is in place is just enough to get their attention and shift the behavior. That is Real world reality. I too have been doing this work for decades, and I am the one now who would say I am proving you wrong, incentives work!

  • Steve Weinstein

    My experience has been that safety recognition and incentives are an integral part of growing an overall positive safety culture at a workplace. “Workers” are “people”… some need a little extra motivation (i.e. token rewards) from time to time to continually improve their safety behaviors. In addition, who does not enjoy an occasional “ata-boy/ata-girl” acknowledgement for helping to keep themselves and/or colleagues safe? Safety recognition programs can be designed to be fun, which fosters enhanced safety awareness and communications between all levels of an organization.

  • Charles:
    I am not sure what world you live in, “Safety First” is pure rhetoric! Sending a message that safety is first is a fallacy, please stop advancing such nonsense! The agenda of business is to make money – PERIOD! “Safety First” is some trinket phase from some time gone past!

    What is “first” is the prevailing culture – good, bad or indifferent – it is what it is. Often times an incentive process is skewed by what the desired objectives are – no injuries, inspections, safety contacts etc.
    I and our company support a great deal of college level research related to improving the safe performance of work in the heavy and civil construction field. I wish that there were a reasonable return on that investment. Sadly this is not the case. Research is intended to prove an hypothesis – not to prove fact. The vast majority of research is theoretical, to prove the hypothesis. Just because research is conducted and a hypothesis is proven does not infer that the results are factual, any person applying rudimentary critical reasoning skills would come to this conclusion. Unfortunately, our society tends to associate the process of research with the concept of credibility. Well there is good research, there is bad research and there is reality. Injuries are reality. What is being researched and how it is performed rarely has any bearing on how an individual is injured. The mechanism of injury is not reasonably associated with research in leading or lagging indicators, it is likely a result of an human error. The manner in which the injury is dealt with by the organization is indicative of the organizational culture and what that organization values. If post injury, the discussions revolve around leading, lagging or other indicators that do not resonate with genuine caring for the injured, well the employees know what is valued. I do agree with Emily’s outcomes in that any time management and supervision are genuinely engaged in the right conversations for the right reasons amazing things can happen.

    I tend to philosophically agree with Mike, industry should not have to pay additionally for safe performance of work. However, most companies do have an agenda to advance in their safety program (new process, new program etc.). In some cases an incentive program can be useful to launch these processes. Recognition on the other hand is a tool that will likely address a greater good.

    The incentive program methodology is so appropriate for research models in that it is little different today than the “mouse and cheese in the maze” of psych studies in years gone past. These types of research are NOT real world. It is so worn out that researchers propose that their “science” applies in the real world. Here is a novel concept, roll up your sleeves and work closely with frontline employees, demonstrate that you care more about them as human beings and their families than you do about the “data points” of your research. RECOGNIZE their efforts to work safely and celebrate their accomplishments. I also, would steer away from incentive/entitlement programs.

    DEFINE the expectations,
    TRAIN to those expectations,
    MEASURE the accomplishments and
    RECOGNIZE the wins and the failures (because there is much more to be learned in the failures).

    While I am not a graduate of any university I have found in over thirty years of real life experience that when a human being perceives that you care genuinely for their well being typically they will genuinely look out for one another. This is an indication of a genuinely healthy safety culture.

    Collecting data on inspections or some other propped up agenda does not typically resonate with the working force – try engaged and genuine safety based conversations – lift this as a value in your organization and watch the safety culture begin to improve – measure the frequency of these conversations and the quality – then work to ensure that they are pervasive throughout your organizations culture. No gimmicks & no software!

    The elimination of injuries is an admirable goal, it is of course what we as safety professionals strive for in the end. I do agree that the focus should be on the things that we “do”, that we believe will prevent injuries. We are however human, and susceptible to human error. Many if not most injuries, occupational or otherwise occur as a result of these human errors. The elimination of injuries or more to the point, the propagation of a “Zero Injury” philosophy will likely result in the manipulation of the “outcomes” – management declares “ZERO” and the outcomes will be zero and the culture of safety will suffer. Injuries will go unreported, “company doctors” will manipulate treatment all of which communicates very clearly to the front line employees where the companies values reside and it’s not in caring about their safety. Try focusing on the right quality activities, engaging your leadership in actually caring about employee safety and then having them engage in genuine safety valued conversations and mentoring those that answer to them to be engaged in these conversations as well. This creates the culture of safety that we are all looking to achieve.

  • OSHA has expressed grave concerns about safety incentive programs, as expressed in a memo issued back in March (http://www.osha.gov/as/opa/whistleblowermemo.html).

    I don’t always agree with what the agency says, but there’s a long history of questions about the use of behavioral incentives and disincentives to produce lasting changes in work behaviors, both in my professional experience and from research insights. Kamp’s article “It’s Time to Drag Behavioral Safety Into the Cognitive Era.” (Professional Safety, 2001) talks about this, as do others.

    People who are doing something to get a reward or avoid a punishment are just trying to get recognition. When they don’t think anyone is watching or it won’t get counted against them, they’ll relapse to work consistent with their values. Either your people believe in working safety or they don’t. It’s not a question of following rules – it’s a question of values.

  • Rena

    Nice article. This new take on safety incentive programs has bring it to next level the benefits and implementations of the program. Thank you for sharing.

  • Don Warfield

    Whether called an incentive program or a recognition program, as indicated by other responders, the purpose of the program is to change an undesired behavior to an acceptable one. My opinion that good behavior can be established without incentives/recognition. How one gets there is the hard part. Perhaps Emily has research information discussion short-term programs versus long-term (multiple years) programs. Nice article and some interesting responses.

  • Angel Laguna

    ‘m my experience the use of incentives for safe behavior was more psychological and less statistical.

    My most successful use of incentives in the field was geared in the following manner: Measuring a set of indicator performance (safety inspections, training completeness, Individual area HK audit, etc). We did not try to eliminate a type of behavior, rather we tried to incentives other more positive behaviors. The activators were provided at the same time each week. Some few employees achieved the goal quicker than others. This provided the effect of possibility of achievement . After a defined time (mostly 12 months) the majority of the employees achieved the goal and received the incentive of their choice. After a couple of months a similar program was relaunched, similar programs but the requirements were a bit harder to achieve (borrowed from Skinner a bit there). Year over year the 3000 employees in the sites measured, achieved injury reductions that kept the Injury rates so low that a new more relevant measurement was developed and Lost Work day cases were eliminated. True this process we attacked issues like machine guarding, hand safety, ergonomics, etc…

    One thing to note. This was successful due to the maturity level of total quality and safety culture programs. Maturity achieved by an engaged and committed leadership. Leadership that was engaged because the CEO specifically claimed when he launched the programs “We will change people or we will change people”. Those who could not or would not get on board, quickly found themselves out of the game.