How to Build an HSE Incentive Program that Works: Reward Positive Actions, Not Outcomes

By Rob Dowler
Last updated: February 20, 2018
Presented by DCM Group
Key Takeaways

Incentive programs that reward lagging indicators of safety have unintended consequences that compromise safety targets.

Like other organizations in our sector, DCM strives to identify quantifiable measures of our enterprise's success. Using these insights, we continuously improve our operations to achieve better results. Our business success depends largely on the actions and behaviors of a very large, diverse, and often changing staff. One of our management's most important responsibilities is finding ways to promote behaviors that will ensure this success.


In our business, the single most important measure of success is ensuring that no harm comes to anyone who is in any way associated with our work. The achievement of this particular KPI happens to be the one that is most closely correlated to the attitude, behavior, and ideology of our workforce.

Why Incentivizing HSE Performance Is So Hard

Metrics that measure factors like efficiency and quality have acceptable ranges of success that can be trended over time to assess the effectiveness of our efforts to improve them. Measuring success in safety is more challenging because the targets are essentially binary: zero incidents is good, one incident is bad.


This makes implementing an incentive program for HSE performance a daunting task for the following reasons:

HSE Results Are Lagging Indicators

HSE results are lagging performance indicators, rather than leading ones.

While lagging indicators, such as incident rates, are valuable tools for measuring the performance trends of an organization over time, they provide little value for managing the day-to-day behaviors and risks that will affect HSE outcomes. In all cases, the most effective way for a company to ensure that lagging indicators improve is to focus on leading indicators, which allows them to monitor risks, behaviors, and activities in a proactive way.

It's Hard to Positively Reinforce a Benchmark Target of Zero Incidents

Any results other than perfection are deemed as opportunities for improvement rather than measures of success.

With a benchmark target of zero incidents, incentive programs typically become punitive rather than rewarding. Projects will start with a perfect safety record, meaning that all workers will start the project having "earned" the reward and only have the opportunity to lose it if anything puts a blemish on that record.


Incentive programs should provide positive reinforcement for good behavior. But traditionally, they have mainly provided negative reinforcement for failing to meet targets.

When Incidents and Near Misses Are Punished, Workers May Be Less Likely to Report Them

Rewarding workers based on a low number of incidents can dissuade them from reporting incidents, near misses, and other opportunities to learn and improve HSE compliance and the safety of the working environment.

When workers know that an incident could keep their entire crew from receiving a safety award, they can feel pressure to downplay the incident, or even avoid reporting it all together. This is detrimental for two big reasons:

  1. Failing to capitalize on the learning opportunity of an incident greatly increases the odds of it reoccurring
  2. More importantly, unreported injuries represent a huge risk as they might not receive proper treatment, which could result in further complications, such as infections

Building a Recognition Program That Reinforces Positive Action

Our challenge was to build a recognition program that acknowledges positive actions, behaviors, and attitudes toward HSE rather than focusing only on the outcomes. After significant brainstorming and debate among our management team, we came up with an remarkably simple system that we were able to implement immediately.

Our Recognition Program

Every supervisor was issued a pocket-sized book of carbon-copy recognition tickets and a roll of hard hat stickers.

The instructions about who should receive these tickets were intentionally vague: supervisors were simply advised to identify any worker who was "demonstrating excellence" and to fill out a ticket identifying the positive behavior and issue it to the worker along with a hard hat sticker.

The carbon copies of the tickets were submitted to management so tfhey could review them and enter the tickets into a monthly prize draw. the recognition prizes were selected so they would be more significant than a typical "safety award" in order to create excitement within the workforce in hopes of getting a coveted prize.

Why This Safety Program Works

The key attributes that differentiate this program from others used in the past include:

  • It forces an exchange of positive feedback between supervisors and workers. Over time, these conversations become more and more organic and comfortable.
  • It creates “safety heroes” at all levels of the companies, visibly identifiable by a hard hat covered in gold stickers. Workers selected on a monthly basis at a safety meeting received their recognition award publicly and presented to coworkers the specific behavior that resulted in this special recognition.
  • It encourages reporting and involvement in investigation processes, as these are opportunities to be acknowledged for exceptional performance.
  • It is 100% focused on promoting a proactive approach to HSE, rather than focusing on lagging indicators.
  • It is simple, fun, and engaging for workers. It stimulates discussion on safety issues throughout every stage of a project instead of confining those discussions at the points in time when milestones are achieved.

An Incentive Program to Be Proud Of

DCM is very proud of our organization's HSE culture, and we believe that our recognition program is an important element in communicating our commitment to those values.

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