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Safety reward programs need revamp: Expert

Warren Frey
Safety reward programs need revamp: Expert

The current system of safety rewards might do more harm than good, according to one safety expert.

Michael Fears, a CRSP and University of Calgary instructor in the occupational health and safety program, spoke at the BC Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA)’s recent Health and Safety conference in downtown Vancouver.

His session, titled Improving Safety by (sort of) Eliminating Safety Standards, explained how current safety rewards programs gamify the process rather than treat it as a core value.

“My experience in safety over the last 20 years in a lot of talks I’ve had with senior managers, both in operational and safety as well as junior people, I’ve found that what we try to do with safety rewards just isn’t as effective as it should be,” Fears said. “We treat safety rewards as a quick solution, and I think we make assumptions which are not based in good, practical experience.”

He added organizations should move from a focus on external rewards towards internal motivations.

“I think what we’ve done with safety rewards programs is that we’ve made safety within an organization something different rather than something that’s part of what we do,” he said.

Rewards programs can also lead to employees not reporting on incidents and even hiding injuries, Fears said.

“It’s a huge issue,” he said. “I’ve seen it myself. People break bones or they get ill and hide it. If we adopt a posture of having zero incidents as a goal, how do you function? There’s very strong pressure not to report things, which is really bad because you end up in a situation where you aren’t recognizing the errors that are popping up.”

Fears said rather than get rid of rewards entirely, organizations should find different rewards to give and different ways to give them.

“Recognize people who do well or improve and you do that without a reward,” he said. “Pat on the back, stroke the ego, and so forth. If that continues or blossoms into other activities and behaviours you find a reward that person would like.”

Fears also stressed while some people want public attention for their accomplishments not all do and it can be counterproductive to reward them in the context of a larger meeting or other similar events.

He added rather than call attention to a safety rewards program, management should focus on one-to-one interactions and work in the background.

“You want to treat it as if it is just a normal part of business, safety is just ‘what we do,’ no different than getting your time sheets in on time, drawings are in on schedule,” he said. “Then it becomes who they are as an organization and as a group.”

Fears said rewards and praise should come from a direct supervisor, as then “it comes from the person delivering the reward, not the program or the organization.”

At the same time, Fears said, organizations should lead by example regarding safety programs.

“At the end of the day how an organization and people running an organization respond to incidents, problems and initiatives really makes a huge difference,” he said.

Recent Comments (1 comments)

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Rebecca Helps Image Rebecca Helps

Hi Warren,

I was intrigued by your article on revamping safety rewards. As a counsellor focusing on anger management in construction, I see a strong link between emotional well-being and safety. Fears’ critique resonated with me; current programs often miss internal emotional factors like anger that can impact safety.

Your piece got me thinking about how a shift from external rewards to internal motivations could include addressing emotional states. Thank you for writing this article.

Best regards,


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