Reinventing Safety: How Scratchie Breaks the Negative Cycle Through Positive Reinforcement

In this post, we delve into the psychology of transforming safety practices in the construction industry, exploring the shift from negative reinforcement to positive recognition and unveiling how Scratchie, an innovative app, plays a pivotal role in revolutionising safety culture.
September 11, 2023
Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.
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In a dimly lit auditorium, a hush had fallen over the 800-strong audience of blue-collar workers—a sea of riggers, scaffolders, welders, and more. Their attention was fully captivated by a mesmerising animation on the screen before them. Colourful fish and menacing sharks danced beneath the surface of a digital ocean as the offshore platform, their future workplace, took shape in a simulated world.

As the animated marvel concluded, applause broke out, and a buzz of excitement filled the room. For a moment, the audience was lost in wonder, united by the spectacle. But little did they know, a storm was brewing just beneath the surface.

With a sudden shift in the atmosphere, the speaker stepped forward. "Okay," he declared, "next we’re going to talk about safety." The mere mention of the word sent a collective shiver through the audience. The energy in the room plummeted, and an oppressive tension settled over the crowd like a thick fog.

The speaker, a project lead for an offshore oil platform installation, felt the weight of the room's newfound apprehension press upon him. He was about to address a topic that had the power to alter lives and safeguard futures, but the invisible resistance to safety, the "invisible elephant in the room," loomed ominously.

Unmasking the “The Invisible Elephant”

This true story from a colleague of ours reflects the negative sentiment that surrounds conversations about safety. We hear these sorts of stories all the time.

For years, the industry has wrestled with the challenge of motivating workers to embrace safe practices. This has often involved punitive measures and a focus on the fear of accidents. But it’s well known that this approach is failing to yield results and is complicating safety with reams of red tape.

Is there a better way to foster a genuine culture of safety?

In this blog post, we'll explore the current state of safety practices in the construction industry, examining the pitfalls of negative reinforcement and the potential benefits of a more positive approach. We'll then delve into several streams of psychology to discover the evidence supporting such a shift, showcasing how Scratchie can help bring about this positive transformation on your worksite.

The Current "Negative" State of Safety Practices

Let's start by acknowledging the prevailing approach to safety in the construction industry.

Often, there's a heavy emphasis on implementing new systems, processes, and regulations without sufficient consideration of workers' mindsets. While these changes may look good on paper, they often fail to translate into meaningful improvements in safety because they neglect the human element.

Moreover, the industry has grappled with a mindset prevalent among workers that reporting incidents could lead to punishment. This fear can discourage employees from reporting safety issues, creating a culture of underreporting.

Indeed, one study at a transportation company revealed that over 60% of employees were apprehensive about reporting injuries, further emphasising the negative impact of such beliefs.

To address these issues, some organisations resort to punitive measures, issuing warnings or punishments for safety violations. While this may seem like a reasonable approach, it often falls short in producing sustainable results. Negative reinforcement, it turns out, only considers half of the equation when it comes to human motivation.

Behavioral and Evolutionary Psychology: Pain vs. Pleasure

To understand why a purely punitive approach to safety might not be effective, we need to delve into behavioural and evolutionary psychology. Our brains are wired to respond differently to the anticipation of rewards or pleasure compared to the avoidance of punishment or pain.

Throughout human history, the pursuit of resources like food and shelter was paramount. To motivate exploration and engagement, our brains evolved to reward approach and engagement with the pleasurable neurotransmitter dopamine. This motivates us to move forward, pursue goals, and experience pleasure in the process.

Conversely, avoidance of pain, such as avoiding predators or dangerous situations, triggers negative emotions like fear. This "no-go" signal inhibits action and is associated with avoiding undesirable outcomes.

In the context of safety, we need workers to take proactive actions, which align with the reward-based approach. This understanding underlines the importance of positive reinforcement in motivating safe behaviours, which can easily be achieved through systems of reward and recognition like Scratchie.

Motivational Psychology: Moving from Extrinsic to Intrinsic Motivation

Motivational psychology introduces the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation arises from external rewards or punishments, while intrinsic motivation stems from the inherent pleasure or satisfaction derived from an activity.

To effectively motivate safety behaviour, we can use extrinsic incentives as a starting point to transition workers toward intrinsic motivation. Here are key principles:

Immediate Rewards

Provide rewards as soon as possible after the desired safety behaviour, encoding learning through unconscious reinforcement.

Informative Rewards

Use rewards as an opportunity to communicate specifically why the behaviour was exceptional, fostering a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Public Recognition

Reward individuals publicly, allowing others to celebrate their success and reinforcing the value of safety within the group.

These principles help bridge the gap between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, cultivating a deeper, more lasting commitment to safety.

Social Psychology: Shaping Safety Culture Through Social Learning

Social psychology, as elucidated by Albert Bandura's influential social learning theory, plays a pivotal role in the formation and transformation of safety culture within organisations. Bandura's theory posits that individuals learn by observing the behaviours of others and the consequences they experience, a concept strongly tied to the workings of mirror neurons in the brain.

Within the realm of safety culture, the phenomenon of social learning becomes even more pronounced. A positive safety climate, characterised by a shared value for safety, is not only encouraging but also inherently contagious.

Human beings are wired to mirror the behaviours and values of those around them, a process that finds its neurological basis in mirror neurons. These remarkable mirror neurons, scattered throughout the brain, fire not only when we engage in a particular action but also when we observe someone else performing that same action.

The silent architects of our ability to empathise and imitate, mirror neurons are key players in the propagation of safe practices.

Imagine the scenario of joining a new worksite, an environment wholly unfamiliar. As you step into this new domain, you become a keen observer of your colleagues. Amidst this unfamiliarity, you witness a fellow worker being publicly celebrated and rewarded for adhering to a safety protocol, perhaps with a digital Scratchie award.

This public celebration, driven by the positive reinforcement of safe behaviour, sends a potent message echoing through the workplace: safety is not merely a rule but a shared and cherished priority.

The collective enthusiasm and camaraderie surrounding this celebration ignite a spark within you. As a newcomer, you're not just a passive observer; you're motivated to align yourself with this positive safety culture.

The power of this moment extends beyond the individual being rewarded. It ripples through the entire organisation, creating a positive social norm that encourages everyone to participate in the safety culture actively.

The act of recognizing and publicly applauding safe practices ignites a chain reaction of behavioural emulation, fostering cohesion within the group and ensuring that safety is at the forefront of everyone's actions. In essence, Bandura's social learning theory and the neurological mechanisms of mirror neurons shed light on the profound impact of positive reinforcement in safety.

By recognizing and celebrating safe behaviours, organisations can harness the innate human tendency to learn from and emulate one another, thus moulding a safety culture that transcends rules and regulations, becoming an intrinsic part of the collective identity.

Scratchie: Reinventing Safety Through Positive Reinforcement

We can see evidence for the benefits of positive reinforcement for safety across multiple branches of psychology. Taken together, these may help to combat the prevailing negativity surrounding safety, changing the tune of an entire industry—but we need the right tools to do it.

As we conclude this exploration of positive reinforcement in safety, we'd like to introduce you to Scratchie, an innovative app designed to revolutionise safety in the construction industry and beyond. Founded by Australian construction industry veterans, Scratchie focuses on rewarding safe behaviours using rewards.

Here's how Scratchie works:

  1. A construction supervisor observes a worker demonstrating safe behaviour, such as identifying and rectifying an electrical hazard.
  2. The supervisor uses the Scratchie app to create an award and selects the appropriate category, like "Electrical Protection."
  3. The app generates a QR code, which the worker scans using their Scratchie app.
  4. After scanning, the supervisor confirms the award, initiating a countdown.
  5. The award is then granted, and the recipient can see it on their device.
  6. The awarded amount can be immediately claimed and transferred to the recipient's bank account.

Scratchie’s approach aligns with the principles of positive reinforcement we have discussed. It provides a tangible means for supervisors to reward safe behaviours promptly, informatively, and publicly, fostering a positive safety culture on construction sites.

Embrace Positive Reinforcement for a Safer Future

In the quest for safer construction sites, we've explored the limitations of negative reinforcement and the untapped potential of positive approaches. By understanding the psychology of motivation and behaviour, we can transition from fear-based safety practices to a culture of genuine engagement and intrinsic motivation.

Scratchie, with its innovative rewards system, serves as a catalyst for this transformation. It empowers organisations to cultivate safety cultures that prioritise positive reinforcement, leading to improved safety outcomes for both individuals and the construction industry as a whole.

To learn more about the positive approach to safety and how Scratchie can revolutionise your industry, we invite you to attend our upcoming Procore webinar. Together, we can reinvent safety and shape a safer, more rewarding future for all.


What is the current state of safety practices in the construction industry?

Currently, the construction industry often focuses on implementing new safety systems and regulations without considering the mindset of workers. There is also a prevalent fear among workers that reporting safety incidents may lead to punishment, discouraging them from reporting issues and fostering a culture of underreporting.

Why is negative reinforcement, such as punitive measures, not always effective in promoting safety?

Negative reinforcement only addresses half of the equation of human motivation. While it can deter undesirable behaviour, it fails to cultivate genuine interest and personal satisfaction in safety. This can lead to unsustainable results and complications in safety management.

How does behavioural and evolutionary psychology explain the preference for reward-based approaches to safety?

Behavioural and evolutionary psychology highlight how our brains are wired to respond differently to the anticipation of rewards or pleasure compared to the avoidance of punishment or pain. Reward-based approaches align with our brain's natural inclination to seek rewards and experiences of pleasure, motivating proactive safety behaviours.

What is the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in safety psychology?

Intrinsic motivation arises from the inherent pleasure or satisfaction derived from an activity, while extrinsic motivation comes from external rewards or punishments. To motivate safety behaviour effectively, we can use extrinsic incentives as a starting point to transition workers toward intrinsic motivation.

What are the key principles for positively reinforcing safety behaviour according to motivational psychology?

The key principles include providing immediate rewards after desired safety behaviour, offering informative rewards that communicate why the behaviour was exceptional, and publicly recognizing individuals for their safety achievements.

How does social psychology contribute to shaping safety culture within organisations?

Social psychology emphasises the importance of a positive safety climate, where a shared value for safety is contagious. Individuals naturally mirror the behaviours and values of those around them, leading to the adoption of safe practices and a cohesive safety culture.

What is Scratchie, and how does it contribute to positive reinforcement in safety?

Scratchie is an innovative app designed to enhance safety in the construction industry and beyond by rewarding safe behaviour using categorised rewards. It allows supervisors to issue rewards promptly, informatively, and publicly, fostering a positive safety culture.

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