Safety Rewards Can Be Dangerous

I just finished reading an ISHN article on safety incentives and the value of a gift card reward system to promote safety. To say that I didn't like it is an understatement. It reminds me of the many a "quick and dirty" programs that I have seen organizations buy into, that give the illusion of being effective, but don't really improve safe behavior at work.

I suggest that most reward programs in safety today are dangerous!

If what I say is correct, and based on what I know about the science I am sure it is, then why do reward programs continue to be bought and sold? There are several reasons. First, it is easier to buy a safety reward program than to work at changing management behavior to positively impact behavior at the front line. Second, safety rewards are a visible indicator that the safety department (and management) can point to as evidence they are doing something about safety. Third, almost everyone likes "free stuff." Fourth, they are often associated with a reduction in injuries, although usually as a function of underreporting.

It might surprise some readers to know that I believe that rewards have their place. I have written books that contain much about the science of behavior that includes the effective use of rewards, even in safety. But effective use of rewards is no simple matter. Changing behavior is a serious business, and misplaced incentives can end up changing the wrong behavior.

There is much to learn about changing behavior. Using a scientific approach, many positive benefits can be realized. By using a casual and common sense approach, much harm can be caused. Most safety incentive systems fall into the latter category. Why? Because they are easy! No books to read; no classes to attend. Just hand out the rewards when people don't have incidents.

A reward program that doesn't include supervisors and employees who understand how to change behavior on a daily basis is "cruisin' for a bruisin." Often in such reward programs the most unsafe employee is inadvertently rewarded. Because unsafe behavior doesn't always lead to an incident, a person can go for the specified period of time (a month or a year) without an incident and get the reward. Rewards don't care what the intentions of the reward program were. Good intentions, in this case, lead to the wrong outcome.

When rewards are used for results directly caused by the increase of safe behaviors, they can be useful if the safe behaviors have been positively reinforced to the level of automaticity. To my knowledge no organization that sells a safety reward program refuses a sale because the client's supervisors and managers don't know the proper way to strengthen safe behavior to habit strength. And until they do, rewards will continue to work against a long-term safe working environment.

Here are some signs that time and money are being wasted with safety rewards. Safety rewards can be dangerous if:


  1. The rewards are based on not having incidents without regard to safe and at-risk behavior.

  2. The reward program doesn't have checks and balances to discourage underreporting.

  3. The rewards are delivered for group results rather than to individuals who work safely.

  4. The reward program doesn't require knowledge of how to change behavior scientifically.


Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.