Rethinking Safety Incentives

Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels critique common safety practices and give advice for improvement.


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I have visited any number of production facilities that had a sign reading something like, “50 Days without a Lost-Time Accident.” Is tracking the number of days in this way really the right way to encourage employee safety?

Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels, safety experts and authors of “Safe By Accident,” recently sent a list of points critiquing certain common safety practices. Here is what the authors had to say:

1. Don’t base safety incentives on incident rates. Having zero incidents is the ultimate goal of safety, but this flawed system unintentionally rewards luck, can encourage employees to not report incidents to avoid losing the incentive, and may result in reinforcing unsafe and unethical behavior. Instead, an incentive system should be based on motivating employees to engage in pinpointed safe behaviors.

2. Understand the value of near misses. There should be a prescribed way to produce a product in a safe, efficient manner. Any deviation from that should be classified as a near miss—sensitizing employees to observe deviations in their own behavior and that of other employees. Near misses provide valuable information about training, supervision and teamwork.

3. Don’t punish mistakes. Employees often fail to report safety concerns because they fear reprisal. Punishing unsafe behavior creates a culture of cover-ups. 

4. Understand that checklists are not foolproof. Checklists can become an important tool for developing sound behavior and producing long-lasting change, but sometimes people assume the very implementation is all that is required to change behavior, when it will only result in temporary change. Items should be observed apart from the checklist to ensure quality and safety. In addition, modify checklists by conducting post-mortems on projects and procedures to pinpoint tasks, roles, and responsibilities even more specifically.

5. Ditch inspirational safety signage. Without the clutter of signs that have no meaningful information, employees may be less likely to ignore important signage. In order to maximize effectiveness, use only compliance signs that direct specific behavior (“Hearing protection required in this area”) and informational signs when appropriate and relevant.