The Psychology of Safety – Motivating Employees Using Safety Incentive Programs

The Psychology of Safety

How to Get People to Perform in a Safe Manner

By Bob Lapidus, CSP (Retired), CSMS


Implementing a successful safety incentive program requires employers in this day and age to be very careful.  We have to comply with governmental regulations while creating programs that will be successful within our respective organizations’ style of management.

OSHA Compliance

In 2016, Federal OSHA just about banned the use of safety incentive programs.  Two years later in 2018, OSHA revised its stance on such programs by allowing their use if the employer complies with the following characteristics:

  1. There is evidence the employer consistently enforces legitimate work rules (whether or not an injury or illness is reported) would demonstrate that the employer is serious about creating a culture of safety, not just the appearance of reducing rates.
  2. There is no violation without intent? Rather than assuming these programs are improper, OSHA seems to suggest that it will now find violations only with evidence of improper intent.  A safety incentive program would only violate the regulations if the employer took the action to penalize an employee for reporting a work-related injury or illness rather than for the legitimate purpose of promoting workplace safety and health.
  3. Rewards for reporting are okay. Certain programs are always permissible, including those that reward workers for reporting near-misses and hazards and encourage involvement in a safety and health management system.
  4. Incentives can be based on injury rates with the right provisions. Rate-based programs that reward employees (or managers) with a prize or bonus for low/no injury rates are permissible as long they are not implemented in a manner that discourages reporting.  If an employer withholds a prize or bonus because of a reported injury, OSHA would not cite the employer as long as the employer has implemented adequate precautions to ensure employees feel free to report an injury or illness.  It may not be sufficient to simply make a statement encouraging reporting or prohibiting retaliation.


To stay on the right side of the law, OSHA says that employers using a rate-based incentive program would also want to implement:


  1. Rewards for employees identifying unsafe conditions,
  2. Training to reinforce reporting rights and responsibilities and non-retaliation policies, and
  3. A mechanism for accurately evaluating employees’ willingness to report injuries and illnesses.


*     *     *     *     *


State OSHA regulations regarding incentive programs may be different so ensure you are in compliance with individual state requirements.


*     *     *     *     *


Motivating Tools

In the area of safety, the most important motivating tools you can use reflect plain old good management and comprehensive safety programs both of which include:


  1. A system of communication – both written and verbal.
  2. Communication of goals and objectives, rules and procedures, and accountability.
  3. Recognition for a job well done.
  4. Correction for an incorrect or poor job.
  5. Proper equipment to do the job.
  6. An organized work environment.
  7. Documentation of activities and results.


It is well known, positive consequences build positive attitudes and behaviors and negative consequences build negative attitudes and behaviors.  In the latter case, most unsafe behaviors are performed because employees think they help get the job completed faster and more efficiently.  In that light, employees who are punished for doing an unsafe practice will simply learn not to perform the unsafe practice in front of the supervisor.


Yet as noted under OSHA Compliance (see beginning of this article), enforcement is the primary way of the land.  Ever since the implementation of government occupational safety & health programs, the emphasis has always been on enforcement and discipline, very old negative management techniques.  The old management concept was employees tend to act like children and need to be disciplined to keep them in line.


Beyond these old-school management tasks are a variety of activities making the safety effort more complete and possibly more satisfying for those participating.  Under the heading, recognition for a job well done, comes an array of programs called incentives.  They can be used in most any organization and under most any management style.  They are part of the function of reward within the area of behavior reinforcement.


That is why incentive programs that recognize safe practices are so much more successful than negative enforcement programs.  Such incentive programs reward the behavior that is wanted, and such reward, or positive reinforcement, leads to repetitive performance of the safe behavior.


*     *     *     *     *


Incentive programs are not as successful when they are:


  1. Viewed by employees as another ploy to get us to do what they want us to do.
  2. Treated by employees with an attitude of is this all we get?
  3. A substitute for real safety improvements.


The Most Successful Incentive Programs

When an incentive program is part of a total safety program, it will be most successful.  When incorporated in a comprehensive management and safety program where employees know they are cared for and where management emphasizes the best in leadership capabilities, incentive programs have a far better opportunity to succeed.


*     *     *     *     *


The last part in this series is entitled Tips for Assuring Successful Safety Incentive Programs.



*     *     *     *     *


For More Information:

To become part of discussions on topics like the one above, go to www.safetycenter.org to obtain information about Safety Center’s Safety Management Specialist Certificate.


After completing this nine-day program, graduates may take the exam to achieve the Certified Safety Management Specialist (CSMS) designation.  Recipients of the CSMS receive a beautiful plaque and become part of an elite group of safety specialists who have achieved this recognition.  Once graduates attain this certification, they keep it for the rest of their lives without any additional requirements or fees.