There are many ingenious methodologies designed for motivating safe work practices among your employees. One of the most popular methods of controlling the way in which workers make decisions concerning jobsite safety is to offer them incentives.

There are many ingenious methodologies designed for motivating safe work practices among your employees. One of the most popular methods of controlling the way in which workers make decisions concerning jobsite safety is to offer them incentives. There is a large and progressive group of safety professionals who believe that behavioral modification can be applied successfully from outside by offering workers external rewards. Experience tells me that this process has a number of structural flaws, not the least of which are the contractor’s three prime corporate motivations for any change: profit, profit and profit. If the bottom line is not central to the cause, the employer will never step on board.

Incentives may take a number of forms, all intended to encourage employees to perform a particular desired action. The current approaches to “incentivizing” employees include issuing gift cards to popular retail outlets, cash bonuses, and even paid leave time or all-expenses-paid vacations to exotic locations.

The two primary means of implementing these incentives are according to individual actions or group or peer activity. By selecting individuals to be rewarded, employers may be unintentionally establishing a hierarchy in their workforce. It has effects similar to publicly reprimanding an individual in a group. Whether the reinforcement techniques are negative (the stick) or positive (the carrot), the results are ultimately the same. The workforce becomes stratified into “them” and “us” tiers. Rewards are either won or lost, thus creating winners and losers.

The goal of incentives, unlike the lottery, is to make more winners than losers. If everyone wins, however, the incentive loses impact. If more lose than win, then the inspiration is diluted. There is a formula for providing a balanced momentum to any incentive. To incite an individual or group is to encourage him or them to alter their behaviors along a path staged with interim rewards without actually reaching a termination point where the desire for further change would be lost. The business goal of providing “incentivization” is like playing a blindfolded chess game without realizing who your opponent is. 

Inciting the Team

There are a number of safety incentive programs and competitive games which are designed operate on small, controlled groups or “teams.” These are usually less effective on a construction site due to the fluid and abusive nature of the building process. Under some specific conditions, a team may be formed on a construction crew, but its life span is usually brief.

I have seen team safety incentive games backfire repeatedly. One safety game gave an accrued cash reward to the team achieving one-, two- and three-month periods without an OSHA-recordable accident. When one team member fracture a bone in his foot from a ladder fall, he was encouraged to keep it silent and the injury went untreated for the last 20 days of competition. They were each awarded $250 at the end of the quarter. To this day he walks with a slight but painful limp from the damage he caused in agreement with his team. He spent his bonus years ago.

The only dependable model of the U.S. construction worker I’ve ever discovered is the gypsy. Itinerant by choice and independent by nature, relatively few carpenters spend their entire lifetime in one town or city. The lure is the constant change of scenery, whether it is the start-to-finish environment of the building or the city-to-city change in geography. The average commercial construction crew remains relatively constant for weeks, not years. It isn’t unusual for a laborer hired in the morning to disappear after lunch.

For the most part, men and women who enter the construction field have little desire to “play on a team” or else they’d be in another line of work. Whether out of massive dysfunction or episodic delusions, everyone considers him or herself tougher than their competition. And everyone is competing. They have to be tough just to approach equality. As a result, foremen know they must lead by prodding with a sharper stick rather than “by example” if they expect to have a job the next day. It’s always best to admit to jungle rules before entering the cage.

A crew will appear to work at a common task for a paycheck, but many construction workers are self-directed and vehemently contrary by nature. They distrust praise as guile and reject compliments as criticism in disguise. Performance is the coin of value during the shift. An individual’s role in quality and productivity often considers safety as a younger third cousin, destined to slow them down.

One crew member’s justification for bragging rights is often a function of the number of square feet framed or squares laid in a day. The employer’s profit margin is the beneficiary but hardly the quest. Satisfaction is often taken in the number of nail gun shots echoing down through the canyon of buildings or standing on a capped ridge while roofers on the opposite pitch are ten courses behind.

Carefully watch three carpenters erect four dozen roof trusses in eight hours under the direction of their foreman and you will likely observe the constant struggle between individual perceptions and motives. The two workers placing the trusses on layout on either plate will constantly challenge one another’s speed and accuracy while in unison harassing the “one-armed, lazy” carpenter bracing the trusses behind them. If he is losing ground, they are less likely to slow down out of courtesy for him to catch up than to pick up speed to push him faster. Listen to the builder’s banter and you’ll appreciate the built-in competitiveness and pride in one’s skills over all other challengers. Without it, the job would sink into the complacency and sameness of equality.

The job will get done on schedule, but almost in spite of the level of difficulty or adversarial conditions. That construction task of erecting trusses was essentially performed by individuals who would have never joined any team voluntarily. There is less enjoyment of the entire project than the individual’s unique contribution to the finished product. Let’s face it: Team incentives are destined to fail on most construction sites because they are not based on the predominant life form found there. 

Inciting the Individual

A crew is a loose coalition of co-workers agreeing to work together at the same task. They are not necessarily committed to helping one another, unless to do so will improve their individual status on the crew. The intent of bestowing the individual with a reward or incentive is to encourage others to emulate and repeat or exceed the actions of the recipient (the winner).

This may be the desired result, but this type of improved effort is seldom gained by offering public rewards on a construction site. In many incentive cases I have witnessed, the same individual received rewards repeatedly because he consistently achieved the goal. He learned to demonstrate the desired behavior by responding to subtle commands. Some individuals have an overriding desire to please the leader and would respond in kind even if the reward were a glass of tepid water. Everyone knows this type of individual is the exception, not the rule, on most construction sites.

Calling out an individual for any reason on the job is typically a monumental event. Many, if not most, workers would probably prefer being criticized than praised in front of their peers. With public criticism, everyone on site immediately knows someone’s been nailed to the deck for some specific reason and, historically, it can’t be good. Returning to work after a dressing down, the worker is sometimes held in higher esteem by others for a short period, even if they are the considered “goat” on the crew.

Construction workers are constantly calling attention to themselves by their skill, pride and prowess, but consider it a direct challenge when a crewman does it. They will immediately retaliate with a challenge to one and all to prove their worth. But when management takes it upon itself to call out a builder in any trade it usually means a dressing down of one sort or another. No one “from the office” typically takes the time or energy to praise someone who is paid good money weekly to do good work hourly. The coup de grace is usually administered by the foreman, relieving his direct supervisor of the bloody task - hence the term “hatchet man.” Everyone on the crew knows full well where the idea originates, and it’s seldom the foreman’s brainchild.

However, when an “official” safety incentive is awarded to an individual crew member, it is the supervisor from the management side who typically places the laurel wreath, sometimes in front of the cameras. The supervisor typically doesn’t live on site, and so may make a special trip from the office to present it, leaving crew members wondering where he came from. Or else the worker is called into the office, with or without ceremony, to receive it. In itself, this can only spell out deception to a worker sweating it out in the trenches.

Compliments are usually best handed out on the QT by the foreman. He’s one of us, so it’s no big deal. That makes it the real deal. That’s the only way most construction workers will accept positive reinforcement without becoming belligerent. Putting a gold star on his hardhat will only serve as a target others can easily sight-in on. I once saw a co-worker quit the job on the spot after being given a large gift certificate for two at the employer’s favorite, fancy Italian restaurant. He said it made him feel “ashamed to accept and a jerk to reject,” so he just left for another jobsite. I joined him in another month and found him hard at work being invisible.

If we builders had a shared goal on any construction site, it would be to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the last day to witness the key turned in the completed project. As dozens of tradesmen, we can seldom enjoy that moment together. The framer is in another state framing new condominiums. The roofer is on to his next subdivision, and the painters won’t arrive until the tapers are half done. How does any demonstrable incentive program work effectively on a construction site, which is a mobile feast of itinerants? How can someone feel appreciated for his tough-guy work behaviors without being weakened in the eyes of others? How can management ultimately gain the trust of labor without doubt or suspicion playing the devil’s advocate? These are all reasonable questions to ask. If you wait for each one to be answered you’ll need to bring your lunch and dinner.

I am not convinced that there is any one way to incite safe work practices on a large or small construction site. It might require a thousand individual efforts per day, for which there can hardly be a plan written in anything but pencil. I realize that sometimes a hundred dollar bill beside your paycheck in your envelope may do the trick. At other times a round of beers after work or a gift card under a windshield wiper could be sufficient. I am not selling you a guaranteed incentive program. My suggestions are only a guideline toward unifying an otherwise disparate bunch of outlaw builders. If your goal is to incite safety, there may be a simple way to make a good faith effort.

If you want your employees to treat your tools and equipment with the care and respect they deserve, then make the effort to provide them with the best line of tools by the best manufacturers and then let them put their names on them. Make them responsible for their care and maintenance for their expected lifetimes. If they die an early death from neglect or malfeasance, charge them directly for a replacement tool. If one worker observes another lowering his power tool by its cord or using his extension ladder as a scaffold plank, he may consider that an act of theft. Construction workers in particular have an innate set of ethical values when it comes to the tools of their trade. Most tradesmen would never consider stealing another man’s tools, as it would condone the theft of their own tools as well and that’s just unacceptable. Some of us may be unethical but we’re not dishonest.

If your company instituted a quarterly open accounting policy and a unilateral, but graduated, profit-sharing policy from top to bottom of the corporation, the concept of “me and them” would begin to dissolve. I say begin, because even this dramatic change in policy will initially be seen as a play for labor’s sympathies for management. But the truth is always there inside the corporation’s assets and liabilities.

While numbers may always be creatively manipulated, they are usually difficult to obscure. Employees who are shown the books will understand if their efforts to pull on the rope have proven successful. If the corporation allocates them each a percentage of the quarterly profits, they will better understand the cause-and-effect realtionships when sales are weak, crude oil prices spike or the weather turns against them. Profit sharing engages labor in the market forces which management struggles with daily. Profit sharing can engender more profitability, like a tide raises all ships.

No one event affects the net profits more than a workplace accident. A quarter without an accident, injury, illness or death is a profit shared by labor and management equally. The more injury-free quarters, the higher the profit margins overall. On the other hand, the material, labor and equipment estimates for a project never include the fiscal losses incurred from a lost-time or fatal accident. Were such an incident to occur on a project, the combination of insured and uninsured losses would be disclosed for all to see. Depending on its severity, the ability to pay off such a loss would be reflected in the agreed percentage to be subtracted from net profits over the next 10 to 20 consecutive jobs until the loss is made up. Only then can profitability be reinstated. An accident becomes a corporate burden now shared with labor on more than one level. Their “incentivized” role in accident prevention while in your employment would become as intimately defined as their own children’s safety and health. I’m not sure of many things in this life, but of this I am positive.

If you are serious about providing employee incentives to work safely, they best method of rewarding them for their success is control in their own safety and health program. If your workforce is your corporate liability, according to your workers’ compensation insurance experience modification rate (EMR), wouldn’t including them as assets in reducing your EMR be the first step to becoming self-insured? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to construct a business plan which empowers your workforce to meet its common goals together?

Incentives either work or they don’t. Some corporate think-tanks considered incentives successful if certain landmarks are reached in a timely manner according to a critical path method schedule. I believe that informed employees are thoroughly capable of deciding whether something works according to their quarterly bonus checks. They will be financially incited to improve safety performance by way of natural selection. They will also police their own to ensure compliance. If they see a co-worker climbing the scaffold’s cross braces or backing up without a spotter, they will know they have the power to take control. Isn’t the preferred location of workplace safety in the heads and hands the workers who get the job done?

There may be valid arguments against profit-sharing safety incentives out there I’ve never heard of before, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Your workforce would find it admirable and courageous that you tried a policy that treated labor as an intelligent partner in your business plan. Is that so bad? You might actually incite an alliance so powerful that it considers your profitability first by always working safely. Now that’s an innovation.