“Working safe is a requirement; we are not rewarding people for achieving the basics.”

“OSHA frowns on incentive programs.”

“I’ve done it before, and it was a ‘freebie’ program that didn’t change anything.”

If you have been in the Construction industry for even a fraction of time, these are statements you have likely heard when your safety committee or leadership team start brainstorming ways to improve safety performance. Hiring employees is a struggle in construction, but retaining them is even harder. Effective incentive programs could be the differentiator from your competition that demonstrates you care about your people’s work experience.

Let us get straight to the point. I’m not talking about providing incentives where you get rewarded for not having an injury or achieving a company recordable rate goal. What I want to talk about is action-oriented programs.

Transforming the safety culture from good to elite involves three important elements in the journey:

  1. Human choice
  2. A defined system
  3. Motivation

This is not a new theoretical idea or approach; rather, it’s rooted in psychological science.

Often, our choices are subconsciously derived from habit and perceived consequence. In construction, the work environment changes constantly, and hazards appear and disappear often with little intervention. Our subconscious mind can miss these changes or fail to recognize them as important.

A defined safety system should advertise the acceptable level of risk and identify the behaviors needed to increase awareness and reduce complacency.

For example: According to a recent Travelers Insurance study, one third of all injuries occur to employees within their first year of employment. Often times, construction companies do not report small claim incidents, this statistic could actually be much larger.  Drafting an incentive program to increase awareness and motivate employees using a “brother’s keeper” or mentor approach to observe at risk behavior could reduce error and prevent loss.

Successful incentive programs will focus on key behaviors needed to achieve the outcome, not the outcome itself.

Examples of key observable behaviors include conducting equipment inspections before use, reporting near misses, pre-planning the task, or wearing the correct safety equipment for the task. These can be measured as a leading indicator.

What Makes an Ineffective Safety Incentive Program

An ineffective safety incentive program will focus on lagging metrics. This looks like: rewarding employees for not having an injury or rewarding a team with a pizza party for achieving a month without a loss or restricted time incident.

Let’s be frank — avoiding injury is rarely a good motivator in making a safe decision. Workplace injuries rarely happen, and the frequency of occurrence and severity is typically unknown whether an unsafe decision results in an incident.

You read that correct. Workplace injuries rarely happen. In 2020, there were 4,764 workplace fatalities in the U.S. compared to 696,962 heart disease fatalities for all age groups.

Frequently, people can choose an unsafe behavior and be rewarded by getting a task done easier, stress free, or quicker without the negative consequence of sustaining an injury. This supports the idea that incentive programs, which focus on injury outcomes, do extraordinarily little to influence safe behavior decision-making and why an incentive program that focuses on preventive actions can carry a greater motivational influence.

Construction safety vests hanging on a job site

Why Do Safety Incentive Programs Lose Motivation?

Incentive programs prematurely get bad reviews, and stagnation is commonly why they are abandoned.

To be clear, incentives create temporary motivation. To stay effective, once the key behaviors have sustained consistent success, it’s time to educate and motivate on a new behavior. Do NOT do it all at once; pick one or two key behaviors to start.

Also, don’t be fooled that incentives can only motivate; they can also be viewed as punishment.

For example: If someone consistently follows the behavior required for the incentive but does not get the reward timely or at all, they will feel punished. Let me expand on that, this blog is focused on a formal method of motivating employees to identify behaviors that can result in a measurable performance. That does not mean informal ways of motivating employees do not exist.

Providing a simple “thank you” that recognizes an individual who went beyond expectation or exhibited a safe behavior is admirable. But it cannot be part of a formal program because it’s highly susceptible to being viewed as a punishment when people are not consistently recognized for all their individual performance efforts.

What to Avoid When It Comes to Incentive Programs

Avoid these additional common pitfalls.

An Ineffective Program Uses Negative Reinforcement or Punishment

This is often viewed as accountability. The focus of an incentive program is not to hold people accountable; rather, it’s about identifying deviations in performance to motivate desired behaviors that improve the company operating system.

Do Not Focus on Behaviors that Cannot Be Controlled by the Individual.

The idea is to recognize that error and success happen in the mind of the individual, and the goal is to help each other stay aware and develop consistent habits. Therefore, a peer-based program that focuses on key behaviors works best.

The result is a synergistic relationship between the reward and challenge of the task. It encourages the understanding that the task may be hard to do safely alone, but important enough that it necessitates a team looking out for each other.

How to Make an Incentive Program Successful

Good incentive programs succeed by doing the following:

Implementing an effective incentive program isn’t easy. In fact, it’s hard. It shouldn’t be viewed as a standalone initiative, but rather a component of an overall safety management system that influences risk thru motivation. The result of a successful program is an improved safety culture, increased employee competency, and decreased losses. And who doesn’t love that.

If you need help establishing an incentive program that works or simply want to talk more about this, I’d love to do so. Just reach out!