• Tim Close

Safety Recognition - A New Approach

By Tim Close, Captain U.S. Coast Guard (retired)

Senior Consultant, Independent Maritime Consulting LLC


Recognition related to safety has traditionally been focused on recognizing zero injuries at the company level, department level, at specific locations, or sometimes at the individual level. There are a few problems with that approach.

  • First, if the recognition is for a group, then everyone is rewarded equally including those people that didn’t consistently use safe practices, or who just kept doing things the old way and simply got lucky. The other employees know who those people are and will see it as unfair that they get the same reward as the employees who worked conscientiously to get with the program and improve safety.

  • Secondly, that is a lagging indicator and will not provide a reliable indication of future performance (which sort of sounds like cautionary investment advice from a stock broker).

  • Thirdly, there is a reason that OSHA takes a dim view of employers that effectively create incentives to NOT report injuries. If every member of the department is on the verge of receiving a $200 gift card from the company for a full year of injury-free work, imagine the pressure on an employee who does get hurt a few days before the end of the year. Supervisors will not want to ruin the reward for everyone and the other employees will possibly pressure the injured person to hide the injury or claim it happened at home, etc., so they can still get the reward. That creates lots of issues, none of which are conducive to a good the safety culture.

  • Lastly, that recognition tends to not be very timely since you are always recognizing zero injuries for a time period that stretches back many weeks, months or even years. Between workforce turnover and supervisor turnover, what happened in January of last year might have little bearing on the safety culture of the supervisors and employees at the moment the recognition is presented.

There are better ways.

  • Formal recognition: Start by scrapping recognition programs that are solely based on the number of injuries. Instead, the company can replace it with a system that is based on the full range of safety metrics including whether all the required safety meetings were held, whether senior management was in attendance, whether all employees or all representatives attended, the number of innovative ideas submitted, the number of near misses reported, the number of safety concerns raised, etc. In other words, reward the ongoing behavior you are trying to instill and make that recognition robust and visible.

  • Informal recognition: In addition, use some timely, easy and inexpensive but personal recognition. Let work groups select a “safety person of the month” to be recognized with a small plaque and a sincere handshake by the CEO in front of his or her peers. Think in terms of gathering everyone together in the work place for a 3-minute event. The CEO calls everyone together, says a few good words about the specific person, makes the presentation, and shakes the hand of the new safety person of the month. For some employees, that may be the most recognition they have ever received. Augment it with a few boxes of donuts, or something healthier if that would help. Similarly, if a work area had been deficient previously in terms of their safety program but has recently made great improvements, a few words of recognition in person by the CEO can go a very long way in cementing that desired behavior. It should not be fancy or formal. It just has to be sincere.

The biggest challenge will be the old school people who will have a hard time wrapping their minds around measuring safety culture and recognizing/rewarding a work group that possibly had an injury but has a better safety culture than other work groups. But, the company needs to measure what is important to them. If safety culture is important, that is what needs to be measured and not just the number of injuries.