Recognizing and Rewarding Safe Behaviors Makes Safer Workplaces

August 4, 2022 John Rossheim


5-minute read

Workplace injuries have always plagued manufacturing, warehousing, and other industries, with many associated costs – from the suffering of injured employees or even their disability or death, to the employer’s liability and lost productivity.

In recent decades, progress has been made – but there’s still a long way to go. A multidisciplinary approach to improving the organization’s culture of safety, including recognition and rewards for individuals and teams who move the ball forward, may bring the greatest benefit to companies and their workers.

Despite decades of declining recordable injury rates, these incidents are still a major problem for American companies. In 2017, private employers recorded 2.8 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports. That’s nearly three injuries per 100 full-time equivalent workers. In manufacturing, about one in three injuries resulted in days away from work; in warehousing and storage, nearly two of three injuries necessitated time off.

Even more ominously, 5,147 fatal work injuries were recorded in the United States in 2017, down slightly from the 5,190 reported a year earlier. That’s more fatalities than there were among U.S. troops in the entire Iraq war. Among those workplace deaths, 303 were in manufacturing and 882 were in transportation and warehousing.

Troubled employees bring health and safety issues into the workplace.

Workplace injuries have a dangerous intersection with two of America’s endemic social and behavioral problems: drug and alcohol addiction, and violent crime.

Unintentional overdose deaths caused by nonmedical use of drugs or alcohol at work increased 25% to 272 in 2017 from 217 the previous year, according to the BLS. Shockingly, 2017 was the fifth consecutive year in which these workplace fatalities increased by at least 25%.

There were also 458 work-related homicides and 275 suicides in 2017, making intentional fatal injuries the third most common cause of work-related death, reports the National Safety Council. “Violence and other injuries by persons or animals” is the fifth-leading cause of workplace injuries and third-leading cause of work-related deaths.

“When I talk to safety professionals from other developed countries, there’s almost disbelief that workplace violence is so big here,” says John Dony, director of the Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council.

Further complicating the picture, workplace injuries are distributed unevenly across workforce demographics. Injuries are disproportionately high among young, inexperienced workers who may be less aware of the risks, and among older workers, some recently returned to the workforce, John says. Minority and immigrant populations are also at heightened risk of injury on the factory floor or in the warehouse.

All of this points to the need for a workplace safety culture that’s as much concerned with people and behavior as it is with traditional measures like physical safeguards and rules generated by bureaucracy.

Behavioral strategies promise to further curb injuries.

“The primary driver of reductions in workplace injuries over the past 20 years has been organizations’ focus on putting people first,” says Rebecca Bratton, president of Courageously Leading, a consulting firm specializing in safety in manufacturing plants. Previously the emphasis was on merely meeting the minimum safety standards set by labor laws, she adds. Whether motivated by financial considerations or concern for their workers, many manufacturing and warehousing employers continue to innovate to make their workplaces safer.

One strategy that’s gaining ground is to recognize and reward employees for taking action to improve workplace safety. “The role of rewards and recognition programs in workplace safety has changed over time,” says Rebecca. A traditional focus was on injury rates – think of a sign posted on the factory floor that says: “This Plant Has Worked 99 Days Without An Injury.” But that emphasis had a counterproductive, chilling effect on the recording of injuries, Bratton believes. “So OSHA now says that recognition has to be tied to safe behaviors, to the factors that determine future success or failure of safety efforts.”

OSHA spokesperson Kimberly Darby confirmed this policy. “Incentive programs must not discourage workers from reporting,” she wrote in an email. “Employers should implement an incentive program that rewards workers for identifying unsafe conditions in the workplace.”

Implicit in such programs is the conviction that everyone in an organization has something to contribute to workplace safety. “So many factors come together when there’s a safety incident,” says John. “The organization needs the perspectives of frontline workers as well as leaders.”

At the same time, more and more organizations are bringing to bear expertise from a variety of disciplines. “Many safety professionals are from an engineering or hard science background, and there was skepticism among employers and regulators about the role of communications people and psychologists,” says John, whose training includes a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Rewards for safe behaviors can reduce injuries.

Many organizations are now emphasizing frequent communication among employees and positive reinforcement as superior ways to promote safe behaviors. And there is evidence that recognition and rewards programs for workplace safety can be very effective. Workhuman® Analytics & Research Institute research shows manufacturing plants that gave the fewest safety awards were plagued with total recordable injury rates more than 5x as high as plants with the most comprehensive safety awards programs.

Rebecca leaves us with three keys to optimizing recognition and rewards for safety:

  • Management must believe in the safety rewards program and push it to employees.
  • A reward should be given as soon as an employee notices another employee’s action that promotes safety. “The greater the delay, the less effective the recognition and reward,” he says.
  • Simpler rewards programs are better. “Complex, formula-driven programs tend to lose employees.”


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About the Author

John Rossheim

John Rossheim writes about healthcare, diversity, recruiting and human resources.