Safety Rewards: Good Idea or Bad Idea?

Rewarding Employees
September 19, 2019

“You needn’t worry about your reward.
If money is all that you love, then that’s what you’ll receive.”
~Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in “Star Wars”

In July, we published a post on rewarding safety success across different global cultures. The post explained how some types of rewards may work in some countries, but not in others.

Whether safety rewards actually work or not is another topic. As it turns out, an article in the July 2019 issue of Professional Safety Journal looked into the role of safety rewards in promoting safe behavior at a construction project in the U.K.

The research aimed to answer three main questions:

  1. How influential did workers perceive the safety reward system to be?
  2. What are the characteristics of a motivating reward?
  3. What hinders the success of individual and group reward systems?

Using a combination of quantitative (questionnaires) and qualitative (interviews, observations) methods over a three-year period, researchers collected data from directors to frontline workers to answer the questions.

Two survey questions showed that most respondents believe that the safety reward system is effective.

Over 65% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statements “The Safely Award Scheme encourages me to work safely” and “The Safely Award Scheme encourages me to make interventions when I witness people working unsafely.”

The researchers discovered that certain aspects of award design and criteria are more motivating. For example, financial awards are more motivating than non-financial ones, such as team t-shirts.

Awards should also be of reasonable value. They should not be too low that they fail to provide an incentive. But they should not be too high either, to prevent workers from purposely creating hazards in order to “fix” them.

The nomination process for awards should be clearly articulated throughout the organization. Small numbers of nominations can lead to unworthy acts being rewarded, which lessens the impact of the award.

The research also includes some instances of individual and team awards that did not work. For example, many frontline workers were frustrated that supervisors could be given an individual safety reward, which they saw as the supervisor taking credit for an entire team’s performance.

Also, because of high turnover, the company found it difficult to grant team-based awards because only four out of 22 workers had actually been present for the entire award period. In the end, no team-based award was issued, which led to feelings of resentment among workers.

The researchers include other key takeaways to create a successful safety reward system:

  • Focus on safe behaviors rather than performance on lagging indicators, like incident rates, which can encourage underreporting.
  • Carefully consider the evaluation for awards so that the same teams and individuals are not constantly awarded, which can raise doubts about the award’s validity.
  • Have contingency plans for unanticipated scenarios, like a period of high worker turnover, to decide if team-based awards should be distributed.

We can’t say that safety rewards are 100% effective or ineffective in encouraging safe behaviors.

But the research clearly shows that safety reward systems that are balanced and designed in a transparent way, can indeed motivate individuals and teams to work safely and say something if they observe at-risk behaviors.



Jean-Grégoire Manoukian

Content Thought Leader