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Wanted to add a comment to this excellent post. I agree with all that is stated except for one point. Safety behaviors ARE indeed like any other behavior in that they ARE a behavior. As a behavioral scientist, my goal in working with organizations of all kinds is to provide a foundation for helping to achieve behavioral goals. Human behavior is subject to the laws of classical and operant conditioning. Behaviors may take on different shapes and forms but they ultimately are behaviors. Our emphasis in the article was to highlight how BBS programs can follow sound principles of shaping and reinforcement. Gift cards, cash, t-shirts, cash, or any reward should be targeted and delivered to maximize the probability of the target behavior occurring. Which reward is best? Only the rewards that maximize the likelihood of the desired behavior. So we have no preference, or position on the type of reward as long as it is perceived as meaningful to the individual. In the end if BBS programs do not follow the basic foundation and principles of behavioral science then they are not likely to succeed. BBS programs are no different than productivity programs or health and wellness programs in one important dimension-- behavior is the primary target of influence. When behavior is the goal then behavioral science principles apply regardless of the type of behavior. This type of conversation is critical and I appreciate the chance to continue the dialog...jk

This is a bit of hot spot for me. So this will be a long comment...

First and foremost I'm not a big fan of the "antecedents, behavior, consequences" point of view on incentives and rewards. While we, as humans, are SUBJECT to these elements we are not GOVERNED by them. We have choices and we make them. We don't blindly follow the reward trail. And that is obvious in incentives focused on safety. If they really, really worked - I'd only have to run a safety incentive once and the behaviors would be locked in.


We still have unsafe work habits. I don't believe any traditional incenitve program can, in the long-term, change a behavior where the initial "award" for being safe is keeping an arm, leg or your life.

In other words, if someone isn't safe with these kinds of rewards (or actually punishments) how would adding a few points make that much difference?

We need to get to the root cause - not the symptom. We have issues with safety because:

At-risk behaviors are often more comfortable, convenient, and time efficient than safe behaviors. (and we know how companies value efficienty - cross objectives here)

At-risk behaviors rarely result in the sort of consequences (e.g., injury, discipline) sufficient to discourage their occurrence and initial safety awareness (the odds are really in favor of not getting injured)

Carefulness is often short-lived because of a natural learning process (i.e., drift).

Keeping an organization focused on safety isn’t a program. Safety must be a culture – and not just part of the culture but THE culture. Changing or creating a culture requires that individuals be in charge of safety and that they see that being safe is really a benefit to others rather than to themselves.


Over time, safety programs have changed focus from “be safe to save the company money” to “be safe to protect yourself” to “be safe to earn awards.”

Unfortunately, none of these approaches has been proven to really move the needle on safety for any length of time. In many cases improvements can be cited, but only during the program period when the maximum influence is being felt. Once the program has been discontinued, old behaviors return and safety once again becomes an issue.

If the issue was simply to educate people to the costs associated with safety and the benefits the individual enjoys by not having accidents then it would be an easy task to increase safety. But the same approach has been used to influence people to quit smoking or stop eating at McDonalds… yet people continue to do both.

In my experience there are two things missing with most safety programs.

One: the connection between the individual and something THEY care about (something bigger than a debit card or catalog.)

People lose weight when it impacts their ability to provide for their families, or they quit smoking when their children’s’ pleas to “be around for my wedding” become too heart-wrenching to bear.

In other words, the focus for changing behaviors related to safety need to be redirected from the individual’s benefit or the company’s benefit to the benefit of the participant’s family, friends or other people that have personal significance. We need to, in more direct words - make them feel guilty to a point - to the point that realize that their behavior affects someone other than themselves.

And Two: Developing a "culture" of safety - not a safety program.

The definition of culture:

The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.

The key words in this definition are “socially transmitted.” What this means is that the individuals in the group need to discuss, model and focus on safe behaviors between themselves. They need to reinforce each other’s behaviors – participants are the reinforcers. Participants own the program – not the company.

The key is to get the participant to become an active member through rewarding other participants AND change the conversation from one of safety for the sake of the individual or company to that of a benefit to the individual’s family or other close personal relationships.

To do this - we must reinforce those behaviors that create a culture of safety - not simply reward people for being safe. We need to focus on behaviors that reinforce activities that result in:

Safety being held as a value by all employees.
Each individual feeling a sense of responsibility for the safety of their coworkers as well as themselves.
Each individual “going beyond the call of duty” on behalf of the safety of others.
Each individual routinely performing caring and/or safety behaviors for the benefit of others.

No amount of rewards for simply "being safe" will work for a long period of time.

Once you've created the culture - the rewards can be tapered off and then it's just "that's the way we do it around here."

Joshua, thanks for reading and sharing your reaction here - appreciate it! Paul, great thoughts - particularly with respect to the end goal of creating a culture of safety!

I have to say that I can't agree with the "all behaviors are like any other behavior" point of view. It may work from the standpoint of a behavioral scientist (which I am not), but I struggle with it from the practical end of the stick where I typically find myself.

And, Paul, your points about culture as the ultimate target make complete sense to me. Here's where I think I get stuck - and why tying cash rewards to safety is a subject that demands discussion....

1) We are moving in a direction of less emphasis on fixed base salaries and more emphasis on variable pay, in an effort to manage fixed costs and support a more agile, flexible talent base.

2) If we tie variable pay to the obvious and important outcomes like productivity or profits, it is important in many organizations to ensure that there is a counterbalancing metric for safety, so that productivity or profitability gains are not made at the expense of safety.

3) So whether or not we want (or think it makes sense) to directly use cash to drive safety behaviors/outcomes/culture, we are faced with a need (I think) to incorporate attention to safety in some fashion. Unless we are dedicated and disciplined enough to simply declare it a condition of employment and promptly remove anyone who flies in the face of safety requirements.

Just thoughts on my struggle here. What a great discussion!

Unfortunately, as soon as you move safety into a "compensation" or "pay for performance" it becomes something you do when you're paid to do it.

What I'm talking about is like kids and lying. You don't reward kids for telling the truth as much as you reinforce that telling the truth is the culture of the family - and no amount of performance in another area will make up for lying. Point being - just 'cuz you get good grades doesn't mean you get a pass on lying.

Too often we confuse things that are "required behaviors" to fit with the company culture and things that we reward based on performance.

In your world - you can pay for performance - just be sure you eliminate anyone who compromises safety for performance and the message is sent.

You reward adherence to culture - but you don't turn a blind eye to it based on another metric. Think of those top performers who were a**holes but the company kept around because they were performing. I'm sure it affected those around them. Bounce them as soon as possible. Culture is the minimum standard of performance - not the average.

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