Fun, with caution

One of your key responsibilities as an HR professional is making sure employees are happy. You want them to produce and you especially want them to stay. So you invest in ways to encourage, motivate, and reward them. Gift certificates for chi-chi restaurants for anyone who exceeds their sales quota. A hoodie for anyone who fills out your annual employee satisfaction survey. Golf clubs for 30 years of service. Incentives brighten everyone’s day - even yours! They’re the feel-good part of your job.

But type in “safety incentives” as a search term in an online discussion group, and you’ll find pages of passionate arguments for and against.

{mosimage} Compared with other employee rewards, safety incentives are a much more serious matter. Not that T-shirtsand gold watches are inherently dangerous, but there’s a very vocal segment of the safety world that for decades has vehemently opposed certain incentive and reward practices. What causes a stir? Two things: big-ticket items and rewards based on a timeline or milestone.

“Posting a large sign at the entrance to a work site stating how many days the site has been accident free is nothing more than a constant reminder of the pressure being placed on employees,” says Rob Kirsch, safety & erosion control co-ordinator for Hopewell Residential Communities Inc. in Calgary. “These types of programs only encourage employees to cover up incidents and are counterproductive.”

Here's why: let's say a manufacturing plant promises that every worker will receive a leather jacket if everyone can achieve a whole yearwithout a single workplace injury. Some experts are deeply opposed to this approach, because a worker might be pressured to conceal his injury for fear of spoiling everyone's chance at getting a leather jacket.

Unreported injuries mean hazards don¡¦t get addressed and someoneelse could get hurt.Some say it's a matter of terminology. "If I were running a company today," says Mark Guindon, a retired safety professional, "I  would not implement incentives for safe behaviours. I would implement recognition, not just for safety, but for anyone who's proactive or productive."

In 1999, Ontario’s Industrial Accident Prevention Association reported that one occupational injury
costs an employer $11,771. When other company costs are factored in - payment of fines, legal fees, management time spent on issues related to the accident, property repair costs
- the cost for the employer rises to more than $59,000.

Guindon, too, has reservations about milestone-based incentives, having tried them in the past. He recalls a time when the companyhe worked for was approaching two million hours worked without a single lost-time injury. In preparation for the milestone, he ordered commemorative, gold-rimmed mugs for everyone. They would feature a photo of the plant and the caption "2 million hours worked without a LTI." At the 950,000-hour mark, however, someone in the plant got hurt. The mugs were never produced.

Imagine the pressure this sort of buildup can create, not only for theinjured person, but for the union representative and others who have a duty to report the incident. Management, too, might even feel pressured to bend their definition of "incident." Nobody wants to spoil aperfect record.

Much as you wouldn't ask a construction worker to wear a hard hat you¡¦d concocted from a bicycle helmet and a slinky, safety experts maintain that a safety incentives program, slapped together on impulse or without a good understanding of what to consider, can be a dangerousprospect.

It's not up to the salesperson
Companies that sell knapsacks, pens, and thermoses aren't necessarily aware of how potentially complex the issue of safety incentives can get. These distributors and suppliers, in fact, call themselves the "I love you" industry, because they're in the business of helping companies with the lighter, feel-good part of the job.

"HR professionals have a lot to think about," says Jenny Watkins, who is a marketing specialist at Terryberry Company, a provider and manufacturer of recognition awards programs and products. "Much oftheir job involves legal matters, setting up retirement packages, health programs ... and they tell us that recognition is an opportunity forpeople to have a bit of fun."

No argument there. Particularly at a time when employee retention isa key concern in the workplace, companies are smart to invest in incentives to show their appreciation. Before planning a safety incentives program in an informed manner, however, consult a safety expert. It's not upto the salesperson to address the tricky issues of workplace safety.

Watkins has never heard of the controversy but understands that a mismanaged safety incentive program could raise concerns.

"I haven't really run into it," she says, "but you certainly want to make sure the culture supports employees being honest and not wanting to cover things up. You can't just throw an incentive at a problem."

In her experience, companies still continue to base their rewards onsafety milestones - a practice considered dated in safety circles. Many, she says, might reward staff for reaching six months without an accident or 100,000 miles of safe driving. Watkins believes this can be a good motivator, but stresses that the reward must be appropriate to the milestone. “For a lot of companies it’s mostly about raising awareness for safety and keeping it foremost on employees’ minds.”

“Positive incentives can create new opportunities for safety management and improved levels of safety
performance. But they have to be used with intelligence, integrity, honesty, and with the best interests
of all workers, management and the long-term viability of the business in mind.”*

*An excerpt from Safety Incentives, a book by safety consultant WaynePardy,
one of Canada’s most knowledgeable and vocal experts onthe subject.

Brian Scott, director of business development for Immediate Sales  Agency, is in the unique position of selling the reward merchandise but of also having a good understanding of workplace safety. In a previous career he ran an employee communications company, where he  developed safety incentive programs in the manufacturing sector. Back then (more than a decade  ago) safety incentive programs were primarily  based on working without an accident.

“The school of thought has changed over the years,” Scott says. “Companies are trying to get away from that. The approach I’m now trying to take is to base the incentive or reward on behaviour that will ultimately lead to a safer workplace.”

Such behaviours might include participating in training sessions, joining the health and safety committee, suggesting ways to eliminate a workplace hazard, participating in safety audits, and other proactive, safety-oriented activities. For one of his clients, Scott helped launch a program with the theme “Good to go.” This slogan, etched in a catchy logo, promotes safety by reminding staff to be prepared - like the Boy Scout motto - by inspecting vehicles and equipment at the start of a shift, making sure they have all required personal protective equipment, and being in a safe, alert frame of mind.

For another client, the company implemented a safety education campaign with the slogan “Know more.” Pens, thermoses and other prizes with the “Know more” logo were awarded to employees who attended safety training and filled out safety quiz cards, or otherwise made an effort to improve their safety knowledge.

“We used fairly inexpensive items that carried the program theme,” Scott says. “As long as it’s visible and has a high perceived value… because it’s coming from the company. Coming from management, it’s praise. And it’s a way for the management team to show a commitment and interest in health and safety, and to thank the employees for their involvement.”

He says progressive companies have adopted this approach while others, right or wrong, still prefer big prizes for big milestones. “I’d say it’s about 50-50. There are still many that think dangling a big enough carrot creates awareness and will create a decline in accidents.”

No one disputes the fact that employees who feel appreciated tend to be safer and more productive. Maybe that’s the key: be generous with encouragement but keep the stakes low. “By taking this approach,” Kirsch says, “I have been able to encourage staff to continue to work in a safe manner, and have indirectly won their support in influencing other trades and individuals working on the job site. It really does pay to be nice.”

Michelle Morra is a Toronto-based freelance writer and former editor of Workplace magazine.