Are Safety Incentive Programs Counterproductive?


In our February 11, 2015 blog we talked about “How Context Impacts Your Motivation” and one of the contextual aspect 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 (LTI’s) 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. We also concluded in that blog that 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 1960’s 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. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get hurt and I would assume that most people don’t want to get injured either. People are already intrinsically motivated to be safe and avoid pain. 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 under reporting of incidents and even injuries. Peer pressure to keep the incident quiet so that the team won’t lose it’s safety bonus happens in many organization. This not only leads to reduced information about why incidents are occurring, but it also decreases management’s ability to improve unsafe conditions, procedures, etc. resulting in similar incidents becoming more likely in the future. Because of this, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has recently 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. Our View

It is our view that 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/context 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. We suggest that management take the money budgeted for the safety incentive program and give pay increases while simultaneous examining and improving organizational context to help keep employees safe.