The question of whether safety rewards programs are ethical is rather tricky, depending on what way you choose to look at the issue. On the one hand, some workers may need to receive a reward or some other type of positive reinforcement in order to maintain the policy of the company on safety. Another side might say that you are rewarding the workers for not breaking the policies and regulations that govern their work. These two views need to be explored to determine what the way to determine the question is.
I do not believe that safety reward programs are an ethical way to maintain a safe work place, if they are not properly managed. If the reward program uses a mixture of positive and negative reinforcement, than yes, they could be ethical because it is reinforcing the behaviours that we want the worker to have. The negative reinforcement will discourage the unsafe practices that may sneak by, as supervisors maintain a close eye on the workers to determine if they if they are meeting the standards that are set by company policy.
If the company bases its reward system solely on the outcomes, then issues start to develop where the ethics will start to be questioned. When the company bases its system of rewards on the number of accidents that are reported, instead of watching what the workers are actually doing, then that puts the pressure on the workers to not report those minor accidents and near-misses that do occur. Peer-pressure could be applied by other workers to not report. This will increase the apathy that workers feel towards the occupational health and safety program. It will also limit its effectiveness, since the causes of these accidents.
The Nova Scotia Construction Safety Association COR audits have a space available to rewards companies with a point for have a safety rewards program. Companies should instead be losing points for having one. At best, you are rewarding workers for doing their job the way they should be doing anyway. At worst, you are creating a reason for workers to not report minor incidents and this may lead to a major incident later on. Given these two situations, it is better to not use a safety reward program at all.