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Basing Safety Recognition and Celebrations on Data

by Terry McSween

In our last issue I discussed the Steering Committee’s use of data for targeting safety improvements. In this article I would like to continue that theme and discuss another use of data by the Steering Committee – for planning recognition and celebrations. While recognition and celebrations are critical to a robust behavior-based safety (BBS) process, they are often conducted poorly or even ignored.

Some years ago I worked with a client one of whose team members was adamant about not using any form of safety recognition. Her rationale was, “We don’t recognize people’s contributions in quality or production, so we shouldn’t do it for safety.” Such an argument! In effect, she was saying, we mismanage other types of performance, so let’s mess up safety in the same way!

I use the terms recognition and celebrations rather than the technical term reinforcement, though that is what we are striving to achieve. In motivating people, we have only two broad strategies. Many companies have traditionally relied upon on what we would call aversive control, which includes threats of discipline, loss of opportunity, and job loss. Such companies create a culture where people do what they “have to” do. The alternative is to create an environment in which people engage in discretionary effort – that is, they go beyond minimum requirements because they want to. Some argue that the employee’s salary or going home without injury should be reward enough, but the point is that these are simply insufficient to sustain the kinds of performance we are striving for in high-performing organizations. An in-depth discussion of this concept is beyond the scope of this paper, but reinforcement is the ultimate key to a successful BBS process. Do it well and your process will thrive; do it poorly and your process will struggle.

In some cases, people object to recognition because they have a history with safety award programs that were poorly designed. Giving away large items and making large financial rewards can have several negative side effects, most notably a chilling effect on accurate reporting or a perception that the company is trying to buy safety rather than create a safe workplace. These are significant problems with many traditional safety award programs, but they are a result of poor design, not problems with the use of reinforcement.

General Suggestions

In many ways, all of these suggestions about recognition and celebrations are closely tied to a single concept: they need to be meaningful to those involved. This factor often pertains simply to delivery – that is, ensuring that whoever provides the recognition, or moderates the celebration, communicates the specific safety contribution made or the milestone reached by the individual or group.

Much of the literature on this topic also stresses the importance of the sincerity of communication during recognition and celebrations. Often, sincerity is a matter of making sure the speaker does not send a mixed message. The behavior of the speaker needs to reflect the intent of the speaker. In addition to the specificity of the message, positive nonvocal behaviors include speakers looking listeners in the eye and shaking their hands as well as making specific statements about how the speaker feels regarding the safety contribution and its value to the organization.

Ensuring sincerity often requires careful selection. This factor is often neglected in writings on the topic, but one of the best strategies for ensuring sincerity is selecting the right person to send the message. The obvious criterion is to choose someone who truly values the contribution, thus someone who truly is sincere in delivering the message! A less obvious consideration is selecting a person who has a positive and high trust relationship with the person(s) being recognized. Even the best message will come across as insincere in the context of a relationship characterized by distrust. For example, a Steering Committee member or leader who is widely know for having a passion for safety will be perceived by coworkers as much more sincere that a supervisor or manager who is perceived as willing to compromise safety for production. (Such leaders often engage in behaviors that create a misalignment between their intent and their impact, but that is a topic for a future article.)

Communicate the higher purpose: injury prevention. While I consider recognition and celebrations critical to a successful BBS process, they should not become the primary focus for either your Steering Committee or your employees. If your Safety Committee members spend most of their monthly meetings discussing safety rewards rather than establishing safety priorities and action plans, your process is off track and the Safety Committee needs to be redirected. It should use recognition and celebrations as elements of the process to promote safety. These are a means to promote safety, not the end result. The focus must always be on safety, not on rewards and celebration events.

Emphasize appreciation, not tangible value. Ideally, individual recognition should be offered as appreciation for making a contribution to safety, not as compensation for the contribution. As a general rule, when awards are used, they should be largely symbolic reminders of the contribution or safety milestone. Even small promotional items related to safety (or the BBS process) can be used quite effectively.

Ensure the certainty of individual recognition. One of the challenges of individual recognition is to ensure that the plan is implemented consistently. This is where many companies struggle and their programs wane. Once the Safety Committee has its basic recognition and celebrations plan in place, it needs to review the elements of the plan each month. Further, the leadership team needs to provide ongoing review of, and support for, recognition and celebration plans and activities.

Individual recognition

Individual recognition is critically important to sustain BBS efforts. Generally the Safety Committee should create an individual recognition plan to support participation in observations, quality observations, and other individual contributions to safety. The table below provides an example of an individual recognition plan that might be used to support the process. The idea is that while the plan provides a basic set of criteria and guidelines for individual recognition, the Committee has the flexibility to provide different forms of recognition (at roughly the same value), or even identify contributions other than those identified in the initial plan, that may be more meaningful to the recognized individual.

  Table 1. A sample individual recognition plan for supporting a BBS process.

Team Celebrations

The criteria for team celebrations typically target improvements in team participation or focus on achieving safety improvement goals based on observation data. They almost always involve some kind of food or beverage. They are best planned for small groups or crews of 15 employees although logistical considerations often dictate the size of groups. Often, groups that meet together for safety meetings are appropriate. However, an organization that holds really large safety meetings should consider restructuring the groups because smaller meetings are more effective for both safety communication and celebrations. This table presents a sample team recognition plan.

 Table 2. A sample team recognition/celebration plan for supporting a BBS process.

We have occasionally seen Safety Committees and their organizations drift after several years towards eliminating individual recognition and using team celebrations alone. Our experience is that this is not a good practice in that it results in a loss of interest and participation in the safety process. Experimental data additionally suggest that individual recognition is far more significant to sustaining high overall performance. Accordingly, our counsel is to ensure that individual recognition remains an active component of the BBS process.

The Steering Committee – A Special Case

A group that needs special attention is the Safety Committee itself. Management – often prompted by the BBS facilitator or team leader — needs to pay special attention to this group. Its members’ enthusiasm and active support are keys to sustaining a strong BBS process. We often recommend sending Safety Committee members to the Behavioral Safety Now conference or comparable conferences to tell their stories and learn from others. Our experience is that those who participate in such events return to their organizations with a renewed enthusiasm as well as new ideas for improving their efforts.

Final Comments

As mentioned earlier, in our experience recognition and celebrations are critical elements of a BBS process and necessary to ensure a positive initiative in which employees choose to participate. The result is high and sustained levels of participation that help prevent injuries. To sustain BBS, both leadership and the Safety Committee have a shared responsibility to ensure that recognition and celebrations are maintained, budgeted annually, and supported at all levels.

Terry McSween, Ph.D. is CEO and founder of Quality Safety Edge. He is the author of The Values-Based Safety Process: Improving Your Safety Culture With Behavior-Based Safety, an influential book in Behavior Based Safety, and he is the founder and Conference Chairman of the Behavioral Safety Now conference.