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When Safety Incentives Backfire


By Robert Ikenberry

When you try to foster safety by offering incentives, do you really get what you want?

Many times, the best of intentions can result in unintended consequences. This happens not just with safety, but many other things, too.

As a society, I think we need to work harder at understanding human nature and what people’s reactions to incentives will really be.
No Good Deed ...

Anyone who has ever tried to write a test, or craft a company policy, or decide how a bonus pool will be allocated knows it can be really hard to predict how some people will react.

Take bonuses. Although intended to reward employees for extra effort and share the benefits of a particularly successful project or year, these can easily backfire.

One might think that an extra check, even if it was only a few hundred—certainly if it was a few thousand—would be universally welcomed by all recipients. Not necessarily.

... Goes Unpunished

There are lots of ways that a bonus can be taken “wrong” (or at least wrong from management’s view). If the company was known to be particularly successful and the amount shared was less than expected, the additional money can be perceived as the company being “cheap.”

If it gets out that bonus amounts were issued uniformly, those who thought their effort or contribution was greater can feel “cheated.” If the allocation is based on the company’s opinion of deservedness, it can backfire that way, too.

And it really is hard to know what’s fair. If a manager completes a “fat” job right at the numbers budgeted, did he do as well as the superintendent who figured out how to turn a real “loser” of a job into a breakeven?

I think bonuses usually don’t do what employers intend them to do.

Rewarding Under-reporting?

Similarly, safety incentive programs may not be getting the responses we hoped for.  Any safety program that rewards a lack of injuries, or penalizes workers or groups of workers for having injuries, may risk suppressing the reporting (and treatment) of real injuries—possibly until they become impossible to hide.

Early attention to minor cuts and sprains might prevent a bigger injury. Awareness of hazardous conditions and near-misses can point out ways to fix a problem before it becomes an injury or accident.

 Programs that reward a lack of injuries may stifle reporting and correcting small problems until they become big ones.

 ICW Group

Programs that reward low injury rates may stifle discussion of small problems until they become big ones.

If you don’t know about the minor injuries because your crews are covering them up to get a bonus, you could be doubly at risk. Even policies like post-accident drug testing may suppress injury reporting.

Flavor of the Month

Another potential problem with safety incentives can come from a focus on one particular item for a short duration.

Workers may give temporary attention to the safety “Flavor of the Month,” looking only at the narrow safety aspects that are being targeted at that time.

Or they may consider these kinds of programs as “background noise” that don’t really mean much.

What the Research Shows

A consistent focus on developing an overall safety culture—particularly fostering observational skills that identify unsafe conditions and acts—is, in my opinion, a better approach.

JHA’s and jobsite or equipment checklists can be good tools, even if they may seem trite or performed by rote. There’s a reason that even seasoned pilots use pre-flight checklists.

Earlier this year, the General Accountability Office published a study (GAO-12-329) that took a look at safety incentive programs.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of research in this area, but the current study recommended that OSHA consider regulating safety incentive programs and encourage employers to take a hard look at what their policies and programs might really encourage.

When Incentives Disincentivize

A prior GAO study, in 2009, did indicate that safety incentive programs could be a disincentive for reporting injuries. And a 2007 study after the fatal explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery showed that their safety incentive program actually discouraged reporting of risky behavior and conditions, possibly contributing to the accident.

A few recent findings by OSHA  in response to this new attention:

1.  Don’t offer incentives so large that their loss encourages workers to hide injuries.

2.  Programs that punish workers for accident reporting are problematic.

3.  Promoting positive behavior or rewarding employees for safety suggestions may be better than tying safety incentives to a lack of reported injuries.

How is your safety program set up?  Do you try to incentivize safety? Maybe it’s time to take another look.  And if you don’t have a program, think about what you want to achieve in safety, then plan for how best to get there.


Robert Ikenberry

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now semi-retired as the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.



Tagged categories: Bridges; Program/Project Management; Accidents; Facility Managers; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Labor; OSHA

Comment from brian ofarrell, (10/17/2012, 2:06 PM)

A local company I know paid all employees 5% profit sharing when business was good. A bad year that came along and the business lost money. Employees were outraged because they did not get there bonuses. They shared in the profits but not the risk

Comment from Catherine Brooks, (10/28/2012, 3:34 PM)

This was the fault of the management and leadership. The management had not properly educated the employees about the basics of business. Employees need to understand what key performance indicators in their specific work areas drive the larger performance indicators of the business. The need to understand that their individual and group creativity and persistance is what makes the business successful.

Comment from Anna Jolly, (3/18/2013, 10:20 AM)

I have always thought these incentives decrease reporting, as do policies that require drug testing after an accident. Good to see research that confirms.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (3/19/2013, 10:55 AM)

Anna, although I agree with many of the potential pitfalls for bonuses, when it comes to safety incentives I've seen it work both ways. If it isn't done right, the safety programs end up sweeping the incidents "under the carpet" so that the performance markers are met and the employees get the incentives. The most successful programs I have seen reward real safety...the kind that makes the workplace safer...not just meeting certain safety stats. Pre-access screening and post-incident screening for drugs and alcohol are a regular occurence where I am...the potential for damage, injury and death are far too high not to. I agree that there are problems with folks not wanting to "rat out" others or deal with issues that come with working "rich" jobs away from home, but when you've got a drunk or high operator behind the wheel of something that can run over a bus and not know it, a fatality is only a matter of time.

Comment from Mike McCloud, (3/20/2013, 7:58 AM)

Since starting post-incident drug screening, false injury claims have disappeared.

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