How to Create an Effective, OSHA-Approved Safety Incentive Program

By: ITA Group
safety goggles

No one goes to work thinking they’ll have an accident.

No matter what industry you’re in, if you knew going into work today would result in a debilitating or life-threatening accident, you’d call in sick. And who could blame you? If anything, your employer would thank you.

Why? Besides being painful and traumatizing for all involved—the employee, their family and others—workplace accidents are wildly expensive for employers.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), businesses spend almost $1 billion per week on costs associated with occupational injuries and illnesses, and those expenditures come straight out of company profits.

But workplaces that establish safety and health management systems can reduce their injury and illness costs by 20–40%. 

“In today's business environment,” according to OSHA, “these costs can be the difference between operating in the black and running in the red.”

So, what can employers do to safeguard against these potentially catastrophic accidents? Well, safety incentives can go a long way to motivate them to do the right thing.

But employers need to be careful about these programs. Often, safety incentive programs can backfire if not implemented correctly.

Does OSHA Disapprove of Safety Incentive Programs?

OSHA, who regulates safe and healthful working conditions through enforcing standards, doesn’t outright disapprove of safety incentive programs. However, they must be created in a strategic way in order to be effective. In other words, it’s time to update your safety incentive program.

In years past, many of these safety programs gave everyone a reward for every 30 days the site went without a lost-time accident. This countdown to rewards was designed to raise awareness of safety and encourage peers to keep one another safe. Ideally, your coworker would remind you to put on your safety goggles to ensure proper protection and prevent any harm—but also because if you get hurt, everyone loses out on a reward.

The flip side of this type of incentive program is peer pressure to under-report workplace accidents or not report them at all. Managers and employees alike confirm this, no matter the industry. And that’s where OSHA’s concern lies.

Related: See the top 10 most frequently cited OSHA standards violated in FY 2019.

Let’s say you strain your back lifting a heavy box on the 29th day of the 30-day program. Your peers may actively discourage you from reporting your injury, or you may feel guilty about reporting, feeling your mistake would cost everyone. Whatever the reasoning, the accident isn’t reported, and you’re a ticking time bomb. The next time you pick up a heavy box, you’re in traction for six weeks—painful for you and very costly for the company.

In short, accident reporting is the issue, not incentive programs in general. Successful, strategic safety rewards should reinforce safe behaviors, not punish accidents.

What Companies Can Do to Enhance Safety Programs

According to OSHA, “employers must not use incentive programs in a way that penalizes workers for reporting work-related injuries or illness.” Rather, OSHA recommends incentive programs that reward for employee participation in safety program activities and evaluations, completion of employee training, and safety walkthroughs and identification of hazards.

In other words, “the rule does not prohibit disciplinary programs. However, employers must not use disciplinary action, or the threat of disciplinary action, to retaliate against an employee for reporting an injury or illness.”

Rather than throw out safety incentive programs entirely, OSHA argues, there are things companies can do to overhaul them and make them work:

  • Regularly communicate the importance of reporting accidents as a part of your safety incentive program. The last thing any safety executive wants is an injured employee continuing to work. A slight injury can quickly turn into a long-term, expensive problem. Use executive sponsors to reinforce the importance of reporting accidents, and reaffirm how important their wellbeing is to the organization.
  • Remove barriers to participation. To participate meaningfully in the program, workers must feel that their input is welcome, their voices will be heard, and they can access reporting mechanisms. Participation will be suppressed if language, education, or skill levels in the workplace are not considered, or if workers fear retaliation or discrimination for speaking up (for example, if investigations focus on blaming individuals rather than the underlying conditions that led to the incident or if reporting an incident or concern could jeopardize the award of incentive-based prizes, rewards, or bonuses).
  • Gain management support and proactive participation. If management does not believe in the safety incentive program and stand behind it, neither will employees. Workers must believe the program is fair, it will be properly administered and that they have a shot at actually winning achieving the reward. If not, the workers will not support the program. They must have trust, and this is best accomplished through an active and strong management presence and role.
  • Don’t punish for injuries, reward for training. If back strains are your biggest risk, incent your team to attend training on avoiding them. Offer quizzes on best practices, and reward those who get a passing grade. This keeps safety top-of-mind and demonstrates that employees know how to avoid these injuries.
  • Reward your team for reporting unsafe conditions and suggesting changes. It’s one thing to report an oil leak on the assembly line. But it’s quite another to pinpoint the valve causing it, document its failure rate and suggest it be replaced with a better one. Offering increasingly valuable awards for greater participation in the incentive program, such as ideas to rectify hazardous situations, demonstrates the value you place on their knowledge.
  • Create a safety committee. Safety committees are a great way to reinforce the value of safety and get your team involved. Select members from all tiers of your workforce to review accident reports, conduct workplace inspections, make safety recommendations to managers and more. Not only will this get your team involved in safety, it will build a transparent culture of safety accountability.
  • Digitize workflow can helps maintain compliance now and later. The winds of change are always blowing, especially in the regulatory environment. To ensure compliance with current and future OSHA regulations, businesses can benefit from a digitized workflow that simplifies ongoing compliance. As regulations change, apps that allow for no-code updates through a central console then roll those changes out to all devices automatically, which helps give safety managers the confidence that they are collecting the right information, at the right time.

Safety incentives can help bolster and build the culture of safety in your organization. Unfortunately, some accidents will happen, no matter what steps you take, especially in hazardous industries such as manufacturing, trucking or construction. Equipment fails before it should and people can get hurt. It may only be a matter of time until a tragic accident occurs. That’s a phone call no safety director ever wants to get.

Creating a safety incentive program that resonates with your people, creates a culture of safety and encourages safe behaviors can help keep accidents—and that grim phone call about a preventable mishap—at bay. The key is to ensure the program fits the goals and objectives of your company and should involve your employees in both the development and implementation. 

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ITA Group

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