Building a Safety Culture: Expert Advice on Rewards and Recognition

By Sarah McVanel, Chief Recognition Officer & Mallory Dunbar, Learning Specialist, Greatness Magnified

image of smoke and mirrorsHow do you build a safety culture that sticks? And how can you reinforce a safety culture? How can your safety culture be so rock solid that it can weather the storm – cutbacks, turnover, shortages, workforce trends, and economic constraints? And what does recognition have to do with it (you might rightly ask since we are recognition experts here at Greatness Magnified!) Let’s talk about how a culture of meaningful safety incentives, rewards, and recognition is a non-negotiable part of creating a sustainable safety culture where everyone feels seen, heard and valued no matter what red flag is waived. Let’s dive into how to make it safe, sustainable, and desirable to identify safety issues and support safety practices through reinforcement.

We’re mixing up this week’s article not only because it’s a topic that I don’t normally cover—safety—but also because we’ve delivered it in a question-and-answer format. If I were being interviewed for a safety podcast, this is what you’d learn from me. (To be clear, this is 100% human-written by Mallory and Sarah. No AI ghostwriting here!) 

You might be surprised how often I get asked how to reward and recognize safety as part of the broader, formal, corporate rewards and recognition program. And it’s a great question! As soon as you accept that we cannot do just surface-level appreciation – a cake at someone’s retirement, a corporate logo swag bag at orientation – it naturally shifts the conversation about how to incentivize and reinforce the most important behaviours and values of the organization. Of course, safety is right at the top, alongside financial stewardship, customer satisfaction, employee retention, and environmental sustainability (among others).

In how we’ve structured this week’s article, you can jump to the question at the top of your mind or digest it all. If you still have questions, comment or reach out. In fact (spoiler alert), at the end of our article, I’ll tell you about a cool program I’ve co-created with one of Canada’s leading safety professionals – Tanya Steele – that helps you hardwire safety into a culture through rewards and recognition by leveraging a key group – Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee (JOHSC) members. More on that later. For now, here’s how to build a stronger, more sustainable, and more meaningful safety culture from the lens of a recognition expert.

What is meant by a safety culture?

image of an iceberg showing that most of it is under waterWhen we take a step back and look at culture from a workplace standpoint, we see that it includes the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours of “how we do things around here.” In other words, it’s the attitude, belief system, and philosophy of the organization. 

Think of culture like an iceberg: All of the visible things—think things like policies, practices, and documented values—are above the waterline, and the deeper attitudes, norms, rituals, and traditions are hidden below.

A strong safety culture seeks to surface the things hidden below the waterline, often revealed in the day-to-day work and some of the big decisions and challenges encountered along the way. What gets appreciated gets repeated, so we want to use anything someone says or does that is aligned with safety we need to acknowledge because it grabs our attention and shines a light on it, making it more likely to become accepted at the rule. 

How do you promote a strong safety culture?

Promoting a robust safety culture involves ensuring that attitudes, behaviours, and beliefs align toward creating a safe workplace environment for everyone. It requires a keen awareness of priorities; essentially, it’s about staying true to the goal of promoting safe behaviours and being mindful of unintended consequences. 

For instance, if you work in a competitive environment, there might be a lack of cooperation, communication, and collaboration in your culture. This is a problem. We cannot improve quality in a vacuum. Competition might be the norm in the industry, but it might seep into employee practices and leadership siloing inadvertently. Does this team compete against that team for a particular incentive or award? If so, how can you create team-based and interdepartmental incentives, counteracting the competitive nature of the industry by having collaborative norming through rewards? 

By evaluating and implementing necessary measures behind the scenes – including policies, audits, evaluations, performance assessments, recruitment and promotion strategies, planning processes, and capital investments – you can collectively shape the safety culture. This, in turn, influences how safety is prioritized in day-to-day practices and organizational policies.

What is a non-safety professional’s role in reinforcing a strong safety culture?

image of a trash can with pills and other mishandled garbageNon-safety professionals are crucial in reinforcing a strong safety culture by providing valuable insights into the organization’s dynamics. For instance, you can illuminate the organization’s safety focus as a recruiter by asking interview questions and conducting reference checks that assess candidates’ alignment with your safety values. Similarly, procurement and supply chain management professionals can ensure suppliers have robust communication systems to promptly address safety issues like recall or quality issues to avoid any safety incidents. Finance can alert you to spending spikes, legal costs, or injury claims are on the rise. Environmental services professionals can tell you that toxic products are incorrectly being thrown into the wastebasket rather than the proper place. 

Everyone is a safety professional; they may not have the official title.

No matter the role, everyone can leverage their unique perspective to assess behaviours, practices, policies, and opportunities to reinforce and support the overarching safety culture. It starts on day one, and hopefully, that commitment will never be extinguished.

How can workers best contribute to a positive safety culture?

The easiest thing employees can do to contribute to a positive safety culture is to report anything and everything that they feel has or might contribute to a safety issue or incident. The sooner and more frequently these reports are made, the better, as it helps prevent minor issues from snowballing into larger problems (possibly even tragic). Every organization should have a simple reporting system in place for incidents or near misses, with prompt follow-up.

It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that every employee returns home safely at the end of their shift. Reporting is key to identifying and addressing issues early in the process, and it is necessary for problems to be noticed. 

This isn’t just physical safety; it’s mental health and psychological safety, too. If you ever worry about a colleague, know they’re going through something tough, or are being mistreated by someone, you need to be involved, from encouraging them to access available resources to being a listening ear to intervening.

As the adage goes, and as Canada’s Safety Diva Lee-Anne Lyon-Bartley has shared with us in the past, if you see something, say something.

What are safety incentive programs?

image of a hand holding a trophy beside other incentivesSafety incentive programs are initiatives designed to reinforce desired behaviours. These programs typically reward or incentivize employees who demonstrate proactive safety practices. For example, let’s say you want to incentivize reporting. You may create a safety incentive program where every person who reports something is entered into a draw. The more you report, the more ballots you get entered into the draw. We’re not suggesting this is the best idea in the world, but it’s an example. (We go into a lot of examples in the course.)

One large mining company where I did a huge rewards and recognition program rebuild a while back had an interesting cost-sharing system. Let’s say you made a quality improvement suggestion or identified a safety issue, and as a result, there was a cost-saving; you were given ten percent of the cost savings. There are issues with that, too, so suggestions were made to make it an even more robust system where even non-cost-saving ideas were rewarded, but you get the idea; talk about an incentive to think of big, bold and complex solutions!

In a nutshell, safety incentive programs encourage employees to actively engage in safety-related activities, both small and large scale, by providing tangible rewards for their contributions to enhancing workplace safety and efficiency.

What are the problems with safety incentive programs?

You’ll see more of what you incentivize, so you must be certain you are incentivizing the right things. We’ve shared cautions with you before.

Let’s say you chose to do that draw to encourage reporting. While it may increase the number of reports, it doesn’t guarantee quality. Similarly, with the cost-sharing example, it’s important to consider if it will lead to people only recommending quality improvements and bringing forward suggestions when there’s a dollar sign attached. What about the things that may end up costing money? Will people still choose to report that? And what if you hit a tough spot financially? Do you keep the program going, or do you cut it? And if you cut it, will you see a drop in those suggestions? 

If you incentivize something that you would expect people to do anyway, as soon as there is a reward attached, the behaviour is now attached to that reward (versus the behaviour or belief). When the reward is removed, the reinforcement is removed. People with the behaviour (like a habit) or belief (like a value) may still do it. Still, those who only did it for the reward – or if the reward became more important than the behaviour and the belief – you might find safety wasn’t so much an aspect of the culture as it was a function of an incentive.

It’s essential for organizations to regularly evaluate their incentive programs to ensure they align with their safety goals and effectively promote desired behaviours that are intrinsically motivated (from within versus external forces). Moreover, when persistent safety or quality issues arise, examining the incentive system can provide insights into potential gaps or unintended consequences that may be hindering early detection or resolution of issues. Organizations must remain vigilant and adaptable in refining their incentive structures to foster a truly effective safety culture.

What are some of the best practices regarding safety incentive programs?

image of a desk with a keyboard, glasses, orange hard hat and a pad of paper that says Workplace Health and SafetyEvery industry needs to examine this from its own perspective and focus on aligning the program with its broader culture. For instance, if teamwork is fundamental to productivity and service quality, safety rewards should incorporate a team-based approach alongside individual recognition. This ensures that safety practices are integrated seamlessly into daily operations, reinforcing shared values and behaviours that drive the organization forward.

It’s crucial to avoid making safety programs solely corporate-driven. It is too far from the point where services are offered, products are produced, and value is created (and in turn, where safety might be the more at risk). Also, many safety awards and organizational rewards are linked to the company’s values. While employees need to embody these values, simply posting them on a wall isn’t enough. If the values aren’t truly practiced, safety awards tied to them lose meaning.

Implementing safety rewards needs to transcend tenure or seniority. By incorporating safety practices into every stage of the employee journey—from pre-hire to post-retirement—organizations can instill a safety mindset from the outset. This includes integrating safety practices into the hiring process, filtering and vetting people from a safety mindset, having experienced some practices that align with a strong safety culture, encouraging employees to join the Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee (JOHSC), and providing ongoing opportunities for involvement and recognition. By embracing safety as an integral part of the employee experience journey, organizations can cultivate a culture of safety that endures across all levels and stages of employment.

How do you thank employees for safety?

It’s as simple as saying thank you. Ninety-five percent of people say their preferred form of recognition is a verbal thank you; eighty-eight percent say a written thank you. Almost all say it doesn’t matter what medium is used; they simply ask that it be specific, and that’s particularly true of reinforcing safety. The fastest, easiest, and least expensive way to show recognition is to say thank you with a specific acknowledgment

When we say thank you and specifically acknowledge the behaviour we are thankful for, we encourage that behaviour to happen again. What gets appreciated gets repeated. The acknowledgement reinforces that this behaviour is important, valued, and appreciated. 

Other fun ways to recognize safety include kudos cards, nominations, writing a LinkedIn testimonial or a kudos on somebody’s LinkedIn profile, recommending them for a job, encouraging them to go to a conference or speak on a particular project that they were involved in that improved safety at a breakout session at your industry event.

We have a resource you can download with 100+ ways to recognize that you can download here.

How do you reward safety in the workplace?

image of a trophy vs a thank you noteRewards are transactional formal systems where we reinforce the type of behaviour we want to see more of. These rewards are visible signs of acknowledging and validating employees’ commitment to safety. Typically, these rewards are part of structured incentive programs, but not always.

Tangible rewards include plaques, gift cards, days off, trophies, bonus checks, or participation in cost-sharing plans. They may be celebrated daily at huddles, team meetings, or annual events. There might be monthly safety awards, project milestones, and company-wide celebrations, such as winning an industry safety award. Highlighting the organization’s commitment to safety through public recognition and intentional communication of successes is key to promoting the message that “what we do around here” is safe work. 

When considering how to reward safety, it’s essential to view rewards as extrinsic validators that signify the organization’s values and priorities. These rewards are often discussed openly, serving as symbolic representations of the organization’s dedication to safety. By incorporating safety recognition into formal reward systems, organizations can reinforce the importance of safety and encourage continued adherence to safety protocols across all workforce levels.

What is an example of positive reinforcement in safety?

Positive reinforcement, rooted in behavioural psychology and learning theory, rewards a specific behaviour to encourage it to reoccur. This concept, traced back to Edward Thorndike’s “law of effect”, suggests that behaviours followed by rewards are more likely to reoccur.

Anything that you want to see more of we need to reinforce positively – a thank you, a card, a nomination, a plaque, or anything we want to use to reinforce it can do that.

However, it’s essential to acknowledge that not all incentives are equally effective. For example, what may appear as positive reinforcement, like public praise during a stand-up meeting for reporting a near miss, could inadvertently lead to negative effects – negative reinforcement – if it causes discomfort. If you’re shy or lean toward extreme introversion, being singled out in a meeting and applauded might discourage you from sharing near misses in the future to avoid such public attention.

To ensure that reinforcement strategies are effective and don’t lead to unintended consequences, ask individuals or survey groups how they prefer to be recognized and rewarded. Utilizing a recognition checklist (which you can grab from our Cool Stuff page) can help you adapt your recognition approach to each individual. By incorporating safety incentives into this checklist, you can seamlessly incorporate safety promotion into your broader recognition initiatives.

How can we make our Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committees more effective?

You, Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee (JOHSC) members, have a valuable line of sight about what you’re doing in the organization to incentivize, recognize and reward safety.

If you’re noticing, there are pockets in the organization where safety is not happening, and issues continue; this is an opportunity to ask yourself, how could we reinforce this differently to help with safety?

Similarly, where you see a lot of successes, go and study where there isn’t an issue, where there isn’t a problem. This is known as positive deviance. You’ve had a massive issue with near misses across your whole organization, yet this one team that seems like they would have the biggest chance of having near misses have none. Go and study what’s happening there. You might find that the way in which they’re rewarding and recognizing within the team is part of the success.

image of a cowboy, chef, doctor, party and hard hatAs a JOHSC member, you must wear many hats, some of which are not fun. The best hat (in our opinion) is the “party” hat, where you can help revamp and transform your system by recognizing and valuing the behaviours that make your organization safer for everyone. Tanya Steele, a safety expert in Canada, and I have put together an eight-hour program for JOHSCs so that you can be even more intentional in reinforcing a safety culture through rewards and recognition. More on that below. 

In a nutshell, what does everyone need to know about why recognition is non-negotiable in creating a safer workplace?

Anything that you want to see repeated needs to be appreciated. Recognition and rewards reinforce safety attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. They encourage people to participate in safety practices and, frankly, get people to step up and put up their hand to participate in formal systems such as JOHSCs.

If you want the right type of people to move into leadership roles, if you want people to identify safety and quality improvement opportunities every day, in any function, in any role, and if you want employees to identify safety successes and concerns from their first day on the job, you need to reinforce and intentionally recognize safety throughout the employee experience journey.

What’s Next: Your JOHSC Leading the Way

Your Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee can earn educational credits through a full-day education program I’ve built with Tanya Steele, Canada’s leading expert in JOHSCs. Contact us at info@greatnessmagnified.com, and we’ll send you more information! 

Here are more blogs about health and safety to give you even more juicy ideas:

Disclaimer/Humble Brag Moment: 100% of this content was human-generated (by us folks here at Greatness Magnified). We are committed to authorship integrity and will inform you what percent, if any, is AI-generated.

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