When it comes to improving workplace safety, which approach works best – the carrot or the stick? While there is often criticism of the blame and punishment approach in ensuring health and safety in the workplace, we examine the two methods and ask if punishment is ever a suitable remedy.
Why are incentives and rewards useful?
The Health and Safety Executive is an advocate for incentive and reward-based health and safety, reasoning that this approach has the following benefits:
- Encouraging staff to follow the correct safety procedures
- Rewarding outstanding health and safety performance
- Rewarding those who support a workplace safety culture
- Encouraging participation in safety initiatives, such as surveys
- Reinforcing specific safe behaviours, such as wearing appropriate Personal Protective Equipment
Crucially, rewards should always be used to recognise safe behaviour rather than the absence of non-safe behaviour. Management buy-in is also an essential component of an effective incentive scheme. For example, senior managers should be seen to be engaged in the process by being part of the communication of the programme or handing out the rewards.
The HSE recommends several incentives to consider, including:
- One-off prizes for individuals or groups
- Monthly gift vouchers
- A moral incentive scheme, where an organisation donates £1 to charity for each safe behaviour observed
The risks and considerations of incentive programmes
Before rolling out an incentive and reward programme to help improve safety culture maturity, health and safety managers should consider the potential downsides. These include the risk of incidents and injuries being under-reported in order for teams and individuals to stay eligible for rewards. Health and safety managers also need to think carefully about how to effectively implement an incentive scheme. It should be well-communicated, fair, attainable and consistent to ensure success and the willingness of staff to participate.
The detail of rewards schemes is essential. Consider if raffles are the best methods, given only one person may be rewarded when several people may have acted safely. What impact will this method have on motivation? Other potential pitfalls of reward schemes include:
- The incentive not being viewed as valuable by the recipient, meaning they are not motivated to work for the reward
- The process inadvertently encouraging the workforce to do the right thing but for the wrong reason
- Regular incentives becoming seen as entitlements
- A negative impact on the workplace safety culture by promoting an attitude of “I have to”, rather than “I want to”
Do punishments work?
Studies have shown that punishments such as reprimands, fines and dismissals are ineffective at preventing unsafe behaviour. Instead, they can reinforce non-reporting and increase the risk of injury and accident. There’s a consensus that punishments, primarily when used in the absence of a more comprehensive suite of safety measures, are not sufficient. At the very least, they can simply encourage legal compliance rather than the pursuit of excellence. However, there are guidelines as to where and when implementing punishments may be appropriate:
- To stop undesirable behaviour. This technique must be used in a timely and consistent manner to be effective
- For mandatory non-compliance, rather than for discretionary safety
- When the behaviour is willful, flagrant and repeated.
Punishing workers who are serious about safety, but have made a genuine mistake, can be counterintuitive and perceived as punishing good intentions.
What’s the best solution?
Considering the best rewards and punishment systems to instil a safety culture in a workplace depends on several factors. This includes, but isn’t limited to, the current safety issues of a particular site, the workplace safety KPIs, the current level of safety maturity, the existing level of management buy-in, and the motivation of individuals within the workforce. Considering these factors will help health and safety managers devise the most appropriate schemes for their workplace.
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