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3 Safety Program Styles Compared: Incentive vs Behavior vs Discipline

Forget the horse and water; the saying should read: “You can lead a construction worker through a safety program, but you cannot make them follow it.”

The goal of any safety program is to reduce incidents, but in order to achieve that, the employees must actually follow the program. This is a challenge for many construction companies.

Safety risks and the incidents that follow take place on construction sites for one of three possible reasons:

1. They Don’t Know

Employees who simply don’t know all the safety information are more timid around the tools and equipment and are more likely to make a mistake due to lack of training. This is especially true of new hires.

2. They Don’t Care

More experienced employees who have been on the job for a while, who have yet to experience an incident, can become overconfident and feel invincible, often leading to very risky behavior on their part.

3. There’s a More Efficient Way

The most experienced workers on site have likely gone through an incident or accident themselves and are less likely to take major risks but have also developed more efficient / less safe habits over the years, potentially leading to an incident.

Each type of worker makes unsafe choices for different reasons, so your safety program should account for all three.

There are a few styles of programs used to achieve that, most commonly referred to as:

  • incentive programs
  • behavior-based programs
  • discipline programs

In this article, we outline the basics of each style of program, the pros and cons and make suggestions on which style may suit your company best.

What is a Safety Incentive Program?

A safety incentive program encourages employees to use safe work practices by offering rewards such as money or prizes for safer work sites. Usually the company sets goals, and if they are achieved, an employee or a crew will win something of value.

Pros

Incentive programs use the natural competition among peers as a tool to engage the employees in participating in the safety program. Employees tend to be fairly driven by monetary rewards.

Cons

Incentive programs can encourage under-reporting of incidents and unsafe work practices rather than an actual change in behavior. It runs the risk of accomplishing the exact opposite of what it was intended to do.

The last situation you want is for your employees to hide or, worse, not receive medical attention for an injury in order to stay in the running for a prize.

Should Incentive Programs be Used?

There are ways to make these kinds of programs successful, but they need to be based on safety processes instead of being driven by results.

For example, you could take the names of any foremen who completed all their assigned safety inspections in a month and draw a name from that group to win a prize. In this case, the foreman is rewarded for completing tasks that lead to safer job sites and not for the safe job site itself.

It’s a very thin line between beneficial and potentially catastrophic.

The reasoning behind an incentive program is a great idea; to make safety more interactive, engaging and even fun for the employees. However, we believe there are better ways to achieve those goals than flat out rewarding safe job sites.

We provide more detail on those better ways in our articles, How to Gamify Safety to Build a Better Safety Culture and 5 Ways to Make Safety More Engaging for Construction Workers.

What is a Behavior-Based Safety Program?

A behavior-based safety program does not reward or punish employees, it simply observes and corrects. The program is designed to have all workers and management participate in the by recording and submitting anonymous safety infractions.

It is geared toward the infractions caused by bad habits learned over time, which the employee committing them is so used to, they probably don’t even realize they are a risk.

Once a number of submissions have been made, the safety team reviews and discusses them with all the employees. Then, as a group, they determine the best course of action to eliminate them.

Pros

Potential safety issues are more likely to be discovered during informal observation by peers than they are in a more formal inspection or audit by safety personnel. The discussion based processing aims at solving root causes rather than just disciplining actions.

Cons

If the program is not introduced and run properly by management, you won’t receive buy-in from the employees, and if that happens, it simply won’t work. Tracking submissions can be difficult and time consuming without the help of technology. Plus, there is no penalty for intentional infractions made by repeat offenders.
Should a Behavior-Based Program be Used?
Without the use of a centralized online form for workers to submit, it would be difficult to implement this style of program in remote locations such as job sites. A program of this style is also only as good as the submissions it receives, and if the workers think of it as a ‘snitch program,’ it’s failure is inevitable.

However, the theory behind the program is valuable. There are definitely benefits of an observational peer review system. If managed properly and with the right technology, a behavior based approach can be a successful add on to an existing safety program.

What is a Safety Discipline Program?

A discipline program punishes employees who break safety rules. It is usually designed so that punishments increase in severity based on the number of times the employee has broken the rule and how serious the rule is.

For example, an employee who forgets to put their hard hat on is given a verbal warning on the first offense and a suspension on the fourth offense. At the same time, an employee who neglects to wear their personal fall protection equipment while working at heights may get a suspension on the first offense.

Pros

Being written up, suspended or fired tend to be effective deterrents. Having recorded written warnings can help reduce the liability of the company if there ever is an accident or a citation.

Cons

A supervisor must be present in order to see the infraction take place. It can be difficult to track which employees have received which level of punishment for which infractions, especially if you operate on multiple job sites.

Should Discipline Programs be Used?

Discipline programs can be very effective if they are managed the correct way. Consistency from job site to job site and from supervisor to supervisor is key to its success. Using a safety management system such as Harness can be an enormous aid in achieving the required consistency.

It also needs to be paired with training, especially if the reasoning for the infraction is due to ignorance on the part of the employee. We outline what a good discipline program looks like in our article How to Implement an Effective Construction Disciplinary Program.

What is the Best Style of Safety Program?

A combination of all three styles, if set up in the right way, would be the most effective. A discipline program covers the new workers who don’t have the experience needed to make safe choices and also the more experienced risk takers.

A behavior based program is a great way to identify common bad habits and ways to correct them. An incentive program can be very effective in engaging employees as long as you are very careful with its structure. Even better would be to gamify your existing program and provide more engaging content.

If you are just starting, go with the discipline program, as it covers the majority of incident causes and offers additional benefits of reduced liability for the company. The other two styles can be added on after and really shouldn’t ever stand alone.

To find out more about finding success in all aspects of your safety program, check out our article Top 5 Ways to Foster a Safety Culture in Your Construction Business.

By Sue Drummond

Sue Drummond knows that learning new technology can be intimidating and overwhelming sometimes. That's exactly why her role at Harness Software is to teach, guide and customize that fear away. Together with our clients, she sets project priorities, exchanges resources and shares best practices, all in an effort to achieve happier and healthier employees and safer job sites.