Course 117 Introduction to Safety Recognition

What is Effective Recognition


There are many different types of safety recognition programs used and promoted these days. Of course, some are more effective than others, but there is certainly no "one-fits-all" program available today. To be successful, management must understand that effective recognition is a key leadership skill that helps to develop positive relationships. You can tell when recognition is effective when there is an increase in the frequency of desired behaviors, better quality, and higher levels of production and services.

A world-class safety culture, characterized by a high level of trust, may not need to develop a formal written safety recognition program. Rather, managers will likely perceive recognition as their opportunity to demonstrate leadership so that ultimately, positive working relationships are established or reinforced. In the best case scenario where there is the presence of strong safety leadership, a formal program may not be needed because leaders are regularly providing meaningful incentives and recognition informally, one-on-one to their employees.

The characteristics and related benefits of effective recognition include:

  • increased quality in terms of production and services to customers
  • improved employee job satisfaction and feelings of self-worth
  • improved employee morale and loyalty to the company
  • increased retention of employees and lower turnover
  • improved employee safety performance and fewer accidents
  • decreased stress due to poor management-employee relationships

Quiz Instructions

Each section in this course will include a quiz question at the bottom of the page. In the last section, you'll be able to check your score and retake the quiz if desired. Be sure to answer all questions or you won't see your score. To improve your score after you get results, just go back through the sections and change your answers. Do not refresh this page or you'll have to answer all questions again.

1. How can you tell when recognition is effective?

a. OSHA recordable injuries seem to be decreasing.
b. There is an increase in the frequency of desired behaviors.
c. Employees don't complain as much when being supervised.
d. Management doesn't have to discipline employees.
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Extrinsic rewards can foster intrinsic rewards.

Recognition and Rewards

Safety recognition and rewards come in many colors, flavors, and varieties. We are all motivated by primarily two types of rewards: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic rewards are tangible and external. You can touch, eat, see, smell, or otherwise use them. Here are some examples:

  • money - raise, bonus, stocks
  • awards - plaques, pins, cups, certificates, jackets
  • time off - vacations, sabbaticals, conferences
  • social - parties, lunches, ceremonies

Intrinsic rewards are intangible, internal, and originate within us. They are expressed through the positive recognition others give us and the positive thoughts think about ourselves. Here are some examples:

  • improved self-esteem
  • increased sense of purpose
  • higher credibility
  • feeling of accomplishment

Now, consider this: Is it the tangible reward, itself, that changes behavior, or is it the underlying recognition - the intangible reward - you receive that matters most? Like many others, you probably think it's the recognition behind the reward that is most important, and we agree. We like to be recognized and appreciated for what we do by people who are important to us. It makes us feel valuable, important, and a part of a team: something bigger than ourselves.

2. Which of the following is an example of an intrinsic reward?

a. Public recognition by management
b. Additional time off from work
c. A feeling of accomplishment
d. Recognition on Facebook



When designing safety recognition programs, it's important to remember it's not the tangible "thing" awarded to the recipient that is truly important, it's the form of appreciation shown for the accomplishment achieved that determines the effectiveness of the recognition. The secret to truly effective recognition is to:

  • identify the appropriate behavior so the recipient knows specifically why they are being rewarded, and
  • show sincere appreciation in the right way so the recipient feels appreciated.

You Get What You Give

The old adage, "you get what you give," certainly applies when it comes to recognizing employees.

  • If you're sincere in your appreciation for a job well done, your heart-felt sincerity will come across in the tone of your voice and through body language. Your sincerity will be felt and will result in a heart-felt expression of appreciation from the recipient. The recipient will know you mean it and will feel appreciated. The recognition will achieve the desired effect with lasting positive results - mission accomplished!
  • If you're not sincere when you express appreciation, the recipient will know it, and you'll not likely receive a sincere appreciative response or improvement in future performance. Hence, the act of recognizing will not have the desired effect: in fact, if the recipient thinks the recognition is not sincere, the recognition may be counterproductive in terms of morale and performance - mission failure!

Check out this short audio clip from OSHAcademy's CEO, Steve Geigle. He discusses the difference between policy-driven and heart-driven recognition.

3. What can you expect to get back from your employees if your recognition is insincere?

a. Insincerity
b. Improvement
c. Creativity
d. Appreciation

Reactive vs. Proactive Recognition


Safety recognition may be reactive, proactive, or both. The approach depends on the nature of the actions or behaviors that are being recognized. Let's take a look at both types of recognition.

Reactive Recognition

Unfortunately, some companies recognize in a "reactive" way for behaviors and actions that occur after incidents and accidents. Reactive safety recognition programs are ineffective because they function only to minimize the negative impact of events that have already occurred. What is the most common inappropriate behavior in a reactive safety culture? Failing to report accidents.

That's right! "Failing to report" is a behavior as much as the act of reporting. Why do employees decide not to report an injury?

Look for a sign in the workplace that says something like, "300 accident-free days!" When you see a sign like this, the company may actually be rewarding its employees for withholding injury reports. Sure, they might have 300 days without a reported accident, but that does not necessarily mean they have been accident-free for 300 days: it may only mean they have gone that long without accidents being reported. In reality, some workplaces may be full of the "walking wounded" because employees don't report an injury or illness. So, why don't employees report accidents?

The problem occurs because employees don't think it's important or they may actually be afraid to report their injuries. Employees don't want spoil their department's safety record, especially if they are competing with other departments. In some instances, the peer pressure is so great that employees will not report an injury until it's obvious or the pain becomes so severe they miss work and must report it to their supervisor. Consequently, the actual number of injuries in the workplace may decline, but the severity of each injury increases, as do the associated accident costs. In such cases, everybody loses.

4. Why do employees fail to report injuries in a reactive safety culture?

a. They think it's a waste of time.
b. They could report, but no one would care.
c. They are afraid of the consequences.
d. They don't want to be seen as a "company man."

Reactive vs. Proactive Recognition (Continued)

Proactive Recognition


The most effective type of safety recognition is "proactive" because it rewards behaviors and actions that help to prevent injuries and illness because they occur before incidents and accidents occur. Proactive recognition rewards employee behaviors, such as reporting hazardous conditions, unsafe behaviors, near-miss incidents, and accidents.

Proactive recognition programs help to prevent future accidents. A very important policy in a proactive safety recognition program states that employees will always receive positive recognition for reporting near-misses, incidents, and accidents. They will never be reprimanded. Below are examples of proactive behaviors:

For managers:

  • Supervisors personally conduct regular safety inspections; and
  • The employer disciplines for unsafe behavior when justified.

For employees:

  • Employees comply with company and OSHA safety rules; and
  • Employees report near-misses, incidents, and accidents.

For all:

  • Everyone makes safety suggestions; and
  • Management and employees participate in safety (committees, teams, events, etc).

When managers, supervisors, and employees are recognized for these behaviors, their overall involvement in safety and health increases greatly. They become more aware, interested, and involved in uncovering unsafe work conditions, practices, and safety management system weaknesses. They also know that reporting hazards as soon as they occur reduces direct and indirect safety costs.

5. Why is it so important to recognize proactive behaviors?

a. Because employees don't have to get hurt
b. Doing so decreases employee accountability
c. It can best keep management off your back
d. It increases behaviors that prevent accidents

Proactive Recognition Programs That Work


There are many safety recognition programs which offer incentives: some incentives work and some don't. Here's a short list of proven successful safety recognition programs with incentives that, if administered correctly, can work for the company:

  • Safety Bucks: Supervisors carry safety bucks, and when they are impressed when they see someone doing something right, they reward them. The employee can take the safety buck to the company cafeteria for lunch, or they can use it at a local participating store to purchase items.
  • Bonus Programs: When an employee identifies a hazard in the workplace that could cause serious physical harm or a fatality, they are rewarded with a bonus check. In some cases the bonus check is a fixed amount. In other programs the bonus check is a small percentage of the potential direct cost for the accident that might have occurred.
  • Safety Heroes: After an extended period of time, employees are rewarded with a certificate or bonus check for complying with company safety rules.
  • Reporting hazards, incidents and injuries: Wait a minute: do I mean that employees should be recognized for reporting injuries? That's right. If employees report injuries immediately, they not only minimize the physical/psychological impact of the injury on themselves, they reduce the direct/indirect accident costs to the company. Both the individual and the company win if the employee reports injuries immediately.

These are just a sample of many ideas available. There are many other ways to recognize employees being used by companies across the country. Your recognition programs will also be more successful if you include safety achievements in employee performance appraisals. Call your local OSHA office to see if they know of companies in your area that have developed successful proactive safety recognition programs: use those companies as benchmarks.

Check out this short audio clip by Dan Clark of the that discusses six ways to encourage incident reporting, and improve safety.

6. Which of the following is NOT a proactive safety recognition program?

a. Safety Bucks Program
b. Zero Accidents Reward Program
c. Hazard Reporting Bonus Program
d. Safety Hero Program

Operant Conditioning

Operant Condition by Mary Shuttlesworth

Operant conditioning is the process by which a behavior becomes more or less likely to occur depending on its consequences. There are two consequences that can follow a behavior: Reinforcement and punishment.

  1. Reinforcement increases the behavior or makes it more likely to occur.
  2. Punishment decreases the behavior or makes it less likely to occur.

Recognition may be a positive or negative consequence, depending on the circumstances. So, let's first take a look at positive and negative reinforcement, and why positive reinforcement is best in producing a world-class safety culture. Next, we'll look at positive and negative punishment.

Positive Reinforcement

A sincere handshake can go a long way!
(Click to enlarge)

Positive reinforcement increases the frequency of desired behaviors through positive recognition and/or reward. Workers think that if they do something well, they will get recognized. Important criteria to remember about positive reinforcement include:

  • It will increase desired behavior.
  • The desired behaviors may actually be safe or unsafe.
  • Workers perform to receive a positive consequence.
  • Workers may perform far beyond minimum standards - discretionary effort.
  • If the desired behavior is to work safe, no matter what - it's a success-based strategy.
  • If the desired behavior is to work fast, not necessarily safe - it's a failure-based strategy.
  • This strategy is more effective if the goal is to achieve a world-class safety culture.

It's important to know that "desired" behaviors may not always be safe behaviors. Unfortunately, this may be true in safety cultures where it's more important to work fast than safe. Working fast, not safe, is management's top priority. This is especially true when the employer is under pressure to finish a project on time. Here are some examples that show how perceived positive reinforcement can increase both safe and unsafe behaviors:

  • Positive reinforcement of a safe behavior: If you comply with safety rules, the supervisor thanks you.
  • Positive reinforcement of an unsafe behavior: If you take safety shortcuts to get work done ahead of schedule, your supervisor gives you time off.

7. Which of the two operant conditioning strategies results in employees being recognized for working safely?

a. Discipline
b. Punishment
c. Reprimand
d. Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement - Matt Sotltzfus

Negative reinforcement, when effective, increases the frequency of desired behaviors by withholding perceived negative consequences. Workers think that if they do something the employer wants, they will avoid negative consequences. If managers want safe behaviors, negative reinforcement will be less effective because workers are generally only trying to do what is necessary just to "stay out of trouble". Important criteria of negative reinforcement include:

  • Workers perform only to avoid the perceived negative consequence - nothing else.
  • The desired behavior may actually be safe or unsafe.
  • The intent is to increase desired behaviors by withholding an unwanted consequence.
  • Workers perform to minimum standard but not beyond: just enough to stay out of trouble.
  • The focus is on compliance, not excellence. - it's a fear-based strategy.
  • This strategy is less effective if the goal is to achieve a world-class safety culture.

Once again, the outcome is dependent on the behaviors that the employer actually wants. Hopefully, the employer prioritizes safety, but that's not always the case. Here are some examples that show how perceived negative reinforcement can increase both safe and unsafe behaviors:

  • Negative reinforcement of a safe behavior. Comply with our safety rules, or else.
  • Negative reinforcement of an unsafe behavior. If you take safety shortcuts to get work done ahead of schedule, and your supervisor does not get upset.

8. If you are told you won't be in trouble if you work safe, what form of recognition is it?

a. Positive reinforcement
b. Negative reinforcement
c. Positive punishment
d. Negative punishment

Positive and Negative Punishment

Copyright gsg Operant Conditioning
Operant Conditioning Diagram

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment occurs when a worker's behavior or performance results in a perceived negative consequence that serves to decrease the probability of that behavior in the future.

For instance, a supervisor might yell at a worker who is violating safety rules. If the worker stops violating safety, the supervisor ceases yelling. The supervisor's yelling serves as a positive punishment because the supervisor adds an unpleasant response in the form of yelling.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment occurs when a worker's behavior or performance results in the removal a perceived positive consequence. Removal of the consequence decreases the probability of that behavior in the future. For instance, the supervisor withholds positive recognition if workers do not achieve certain standards of behavior or performance.

Why Recognition Programs Fail

Both positive reinforcement and negative punishment occur in safety recognition programs that reward one employee for being first, best, or most improved. At the same time the one winner receives positive reinforcement, everyone else receives negative punishment because they are, in fact, losers. Everyone else may have performed quite well, but since they were not the best, positive recognition is withheld. The result is one winner and many losers.

Recognition programs that reward only the best performer can actually demotivate most workers. This form of negative punishment is one of the primarily reasons safety recognition programs do not work. Recognition programs should be criterion-based that recognize everyone who meet the criteria for recognition. The goal is to have many winners who all meet or exceed management expectations.

9. If a supervisor angrily yells at workers to get production up, what form of recognition is it?

a. Positive reinforcement
b. Negative reinforcement
c. Positive punishment
d. Negative punishment

Check your Work

Click on the "Check Quiz Answers" button to grade your quiz and see your score. You will receive a message if you forgot to answer one of the questions. After clicking the button, the questions you missed will be listed below. You can correct any missed questions and recheck your answers.



Take a look at this great video produced by MADtv that illustrates in a humorous way why the "days without an injury" recognition strategy does not work. What are employees actually being rewarded for? Not reporting injuries.

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