Don’t Reward the Safety Cover-Up

Reprint from Occupational Health & Safety Magazine

Don't Reward The Safety Cover-up

Use your incentive program to encourage workers to report accidents and unsafe practices.
By Buck Peavey

It was Thursday, 3:50 p.m. Will Hudson was cleaning up his work area and putting away tools in the warehouse, preoccupied with thoughts of returning home to his wife's silent treatment. "How can she call me a chauvinist," he thought, "when it's her mother who…."

"Hey Will!" someone shouted from behind the lift truck. As Will turned to answer the voice, an excruciating pain from his right hand shot through his entire body. Will hid his hand in his shirt, excused himself and sped calmly to the restroom. Once behind closed doors, he took a closer look. The knife cut ran down his palm, bleeding badly and hurting worse. Could he go back to work?

Will had the following choices: Try to stop the bleeding and endure the pain for the next hour, fake a family emergency and head out the gate, or head for the company medical office. The medical office would report the incident as an accident, though. That report would mean that the other nine people in his department would fall short of receiving their 10,000 bonus-incentive-award points by two working days. Will couldn't stand the thought of disappointing his co-workers; therefore, he washed his hands and covered the injured hand with his bandanna. He went back to his station, where he finished his cleanup work and discarded the knife.

Will slept poorly that night. He worked Friday, but spent most of Monday in the doctor's office with a fever and infection because he failed to get treatment for his wound.

The accident may have happened anyway, but who or what caused the most pain and expense? It could easily have been the wording in the company's safety incentive rules or the "spirit/intent" in the structure of the safety program.

Safety-incentive programs can and should offer rewards for fewer lost-time accidents, but they must be careful to place the emphasis on individual performance and make group results secondary.

We all know the tremendous value people place on acceptance by their co-workers. Every firm and department benefits greatly by these good relationships. Respect, cooperation and camaraderie are the glue that keeps industry moving despite burnout and sometimes seemingly unfair management decisions. Safety directors must be careful not to take advantage of this precious principle, not to overuse it to the detriment of the whole group.

Safety-incentive programs can and should offer rewards for fewer lost-time accidents, but they must be careful to place the emphasis on individual performance and make group results secondary. Peer pressure is a powerful tool when used in an incentive program; but it must be applied carefully, thoughtfully and with open communication among each and every participant.

It's a Coaching Job

Safety directors are coaches, and a good coach develops a written or unwritten pledge of team loyalty, committing each player to the understanding that accidents will happen to anyone. As in football, blocks will be missed, passes will be dropped, but the team refocuses on the next play.

A correctly designed safety-incentive program permits or rewards "reportables" while giving bonuses for fewer lost-time accidents. Here are examples of how some people have worded their program rules:

• A Coca-Cola bottling company -- "Employees involved in an incident may receive a 'Safety Jackpot' game card (incentive point award vehicle) for an acceptable safety suggestion relating to the unsafe act that resulted in their incident."
• A major hazardous waste company -- "Game cards will be earned for reporting an injury sustained at work." But also, "A bonus of one additional game card will be given to all employees in a division that has no reportable accidents during a calendar year."
• A subsidiary of Union Carbide -- "We placed a special emphasis on rewarding employees game cards for reporting incidents, especially near misses."
• A major medical care facility -- "Our goal is to create safety awareness and eliminate serious injuries, not to prevent the reporting of accidents/injuries. If you have a cut and need a couple of stitches you should be able to go to the emergency room department without the fear of punitive judgement. And, we would rather see our employees receive a prize bonus than apply the money to our workers' compensation insurance carrier."

Proactive Behaviors

I recommend that emphasis be placed on proactive safety behaviors, rather than limiting awards for not having lost-time accidents. Keep in mind you never get good results without giving something in return. Awarding for proactive behaviors usually means more tracking, more measuring and more administration on someone's part. Perhaps some of your key employees would volunteer to help in this process. Tracking proactive behaviors means identifying people who:

• Make a weekly safety suggestion.
• Complete X percent or higher on a safety quiz.
• Report a near miss.
• Attend a safety education or training class.
• Volunteer to work on your safety administration team.

Tracking accident-prevention activities means identifying people who:
• Don't have a safety infraction.
• Wear their hard hats.
• Wear steel-toed shoes.
• Honk the horn on the forklift at corners.


Maintaining the proper balance between individual awarding and group awarding and maintaining the proper balance between prevention awards and "numbers" awards requires flexibility. Companies have their own cultures and will operate best under a set of award guidelines tailored by their safety directors. Unfortunately, even safety directors are not psychologists. One suggestion is to write the criteria for the short term and let it be known that rules for points or game cards, etc. may be adjusted as the program progresses.

Essentials for Success

  1. Make sure your program rules are tailored to your needs and to your group.
  2. Make sure management is committed and involved.
  3. Create an exciting theme and communicate it through posters, stickers, specialties, newsletters, award ceremonies, games, and so forth.
  4. Design a program that stimulates interaction, not competition, among employees. For example, encourage trade and exchange of points or game cards to improve winning potential.

Be prepared in advance to alter or change the theme or program once per year to maintain maximum interest.
A safety incentive program is not a cure-all, but it must be part of a campaign that runs parallel to safety education and training. It must be directed at prevention of accidents, not punishment after an accident occurs. It must be a campaign to develop trust between management and producer; a campaign to make your company a fun place to work; a campaign to treat every employee in the same way you would treat your company's best customer. The safety incentive program should also inform your employees about your company's mission, values, goals and, if possible, its financial results.

When you have this kind of culture, you don't have to worry about people not reporting accidents and incidents. The good feelings and trust will tell them the right thing to do.

Reprint from Occupational Health & Safety.
Buck Peavey is president of Peavey Performance Systems, Lenexa. Kansas.

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