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The Narrow Minded CEO and The Smoking Gun


This article was published in the September 2011 issue of Occupational Health and Safety magazine.



I was thrilled! I had just heard OSHA’s Dr. David Michaels speak about the concerns around under-reporting of injuries caused by “old school” lagging indicator incentive programs.

Finally! For the longest time I’d been waiting for OSHA to shine a light on an age old problem. Back in 1981, I began talking with safety professionals about how rewarding people for working a month or a million hours without reporting an injury (the way everyone did it back then) would produce only one real behavior change: the hiding of injuries.

Here we are, thirty years later. Has anything changed? Have leaders begun to get the message and switch to a proactive, leading indicator approach? What do you think?

After hearing Dr. Michaels’ excellent webinar presentation warning against the use of incentives that cause injury hiding, one safety director lamented, “I hear Dr. Michaels telling us what not to do. But I haven’t heard him tell us what to do.

Before I give you my thirty year perspective on where we are heading with the use of incentives to change behavior, I would like to call your attention to a hidden, unseen cause of injury hiding, one that is even more powerful at producing under-reporting than the lagging indicator incentive programs still in use today. I call it the “Smoking Gun.” And it has been largely ignored by the behavioral consultant community.

Incentive programs, you see, have become a convenient scapegoat -a consultants “trashcan diagnosis.” for why injury hiding occurs. Incentives have also provided many behavioral consultants with something to bash in their presentations at various conferences.

I was reminded of this at the Chicago ASSE PDC this past summer. During my presentation, one safety manager came up to thank me for my session “Green Beans & Ice Cream: The Recipe for Behavior Change”.

She then took out her copy of the guide to sessions and she pointed out that there were 5 presentations (mostly delivered by behavioral consultants) about how wrong and bad safety incentives are.

There were hardly any sessions to be found on how to use them correctly and how to integrate rewards and recognition into an overall safety behavior change strategy. I felt glad to be one of the exceptions to the rule.

In fact, even the ASSE keynote speaker Mr. Pink (who is a great speaker) spoke at length about the use of incentives to motivate workers. While I agree with many of the things Pink says, there are some areas that concern me.

For example, Mr. Pink’s new book teaches that rewarding people for doing something well (with a pay raise or bonus for instance) will rob them of their internal desire to repeat the same task in the future. I will address this idea in a future blog, and we will explore it from behavioral science to see if the research supports this view.

In the meantime, until I write that blog, I suggest you find your boss’s copy of this book and hide it. Otherwise he might decide that all that hard work you did this year shouldn’t be rewarded with a raise. ☺

Where was I? Oh yeah, I remember now. The narrow minded CEO and the Smoking Gun….

Here’s the way the story came to me, from the plant Safety Manager.

It seems that the plant had just finished the year with an injury reduction of 32%. They’d had only five recordable injuries for almost 500 workers. That’s pretty good in my book. (I’ve seen a lot worse.)

Apparently their CEO didn’t feel that the plant was safe enough. Plus, it was the start of the second Great Depression and everyone was nervous about their jobs. This CEO flew in on his jet to address all the workers. Production was stopped. It must have been important. You could have heard a pin drop on the floor as the CEO began his speech.

In his 1 minute speech, the CEO made these points crystal clear to his 500 workers….

“1. The economy has tanked, and we will be closing some plants and eliminating some jobs.

2. Your plant has had 5 recordable injuries and over 463 near miss reports.

3. That’s 468 too many unsafe events.

4. I’m worried about the future of this plant.”

Then, he boarded his corporate jet and flew off into the CEO sunset.

The impact on the plant safety record was immediate and striking.

Not a single recordable injury was reported for the next year.

And they didn’t have a single near miss reported either. (Loss of discretionary effort)

I can imagine the CEO reading the safety reports from this plant some months later, smiling to himself and thinking… “There….I fixed that plant’s safety problem.” Or so he thought.

But what did this CEO really fix? Did he really manage in one sixty second speech to change the behavior of so many people?

Actually…he did.

He changed the behavior of what his people reported.

But he failed to change the unsafe behavior of his people. Employees now hid injuries, not because of an incentive program (since the company didn’t even have one) but because of the fear of punishment.

To be honest, this company did have an invisible safety incentive program…the “smoking gun” if you will:

“If you hide injuries you get to keep your job.”

Does the same fear exist in your culture?

Behavioral science has proven countless times that both positive and punishing consequences affect our behavior.

The aforementioned CEO delivered a punishing blow to his people’s morale, engagement, and team spirit.

The safety director who told me this story lamented that over many years, he had built up the safety culture with painstaking effort…”like filling up a bucket one drop of water at a time.”

And then his CEO kicked the bucket over, erasing years of hard work and trust building.

So it goes….

If a reward for working a period of time without an injury can cause injury hiding, then being punished for having injuries can also lead to injury hiding.

Another encounter I had with the “Smoking Gun” of injury hiding was in a plant where punishment was the primary tool used to drive safe behavior.

I learned about this when I interviewed a group of employees at a chemical plant. The plant had no formal or informal incentive systems in place, and they reported only 3 recordable injuries per year, along with millions of hours without a single lost time injury.

During the focus group interviews, the employees told me that they hid injuries on a routine basis.

“Why?” I said.

“Because about 2 years ago one of our co-workers hurt himself and it was discovered that he wasn’t wearing his PPE…. So they made him conduct safety meetings with all employees where he had to tell them that he had been hurt by being ‘stupid’ and not wearing his PPE. We all felt sorry for the poor guy. The intended message from management was that not wearing PPE was ‘dumb.’ But that’s not what we all heard.”

“So what was the real ‘takeaway’ message for everybody on the shop floor?” I asked.

“That if you get hurt, they’ll punish you and make a fool out of you by requiring you to tell everybody in the plant how stupid you are—now, none of us report our injuries, cause we don’t want to be humiliated like that guy was.” And so the interview concluded.

As this example clearly proves, the introduction of punishment into the system produced exactly what it always does: a reduction of the behavior it follows. Even worse, you get compliance behavior. They follow safety rules only when the safety cop is there, but not when he is gone. In this case, the worker reported his injury and got punished for it. Now, nobody else will report injuries either.

W. Edwards Deming said it better than I ever could: “Every system is perfectly designed to produce the results that it gets.”

If you have injury hiding, then you have it because of the consequences built into your management systems.

Another root cause of injury hiding is the way we measure safety performance. Every company today is judged “safe” or “unsafe” based on lagging indicators like TRIR and Lost time injury rates.

Insurance costs go up or down largely based on these numbers, and so do regulatory oversight, fines and penalties.

Until the management systems are changed to focus on leading indicators and not lagging ones, the inevitable result will be more punishment from senior leaders, more injuries that are hidden and covered up, and lingering risk that cannot be detected and corrected-all the while safety incentive programs continue to be the “convenient scapegoat” for why injury hiding occurs.

Clearly there is injury hiding at the chemical plant I mentioned earlier, but you can’t blame incentive programs for it, because they don’t have one.

They have substituted a far more damaging consequence in its place—that of punishing people who report injuries by embarrassing them in front of all their peers.

Is there a better way to measure and improve safety performance other than the current lagging indicator system of TRIR and other injury metrics?

You bet there is.

I have gone around the world speaking to leaders everywhere. In Greece, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Australia and the USA, I always see the same (yawn) safety signs and posters:

“Zero Injuries is Our Goal”

I’ll tell you the same thing I have told all those leaders. It’s what I’ve being saying for 30 years now.

Zero Injuries is NOT your Goal.

Until leaders understand that there is a level of safety beyond zero, they will be stuck and plateaued in safety performance. And if you think punishment will get you there I’ve got news for you.

You can’t punish a team into winning the Superbowl.

Getting your culture to move “beyond zero” is winning the Superbowl folks. If you have used punishment to get your culture where it is, remember that “what got you here won’t get you there.”

I guess it’s time for me to wrap up this blog. For the last thirty years, I’ve been one of those lone voices crying in the wilderness about the need for more R+ and less punishment in the workplace. I’ve argued against lagging indicator rewards systems and for proactive, behavior based recognition. My passion has always been reinforcing behavior positively, on the spot, and reaching the worker’s heart.

Has anything really changed in my thirty years on the watch?

I’ll let you be the judge.

I know many great safety professionals who are as passionate as I am about people, safety and the Power of Positive Reinforcement. I hope that you are one of them.

I’ve also met my share of “punishers” who wear the Safety Cop badge believing they are effective change agents. They achieve short term behavior change in their people. When they are there, behavior changes, however they fail to achieve the ultimate goal: Personal, interdependent commitment to safety, in the moment of choice, when nobody is watching.

I also know that many of you struggle with outdated lagging indicator incentive programs that do cause people to hide injuries. Often these systems are imposed from somewhere high above, and are written into the compensation system, where they become almost unchangeable.

My advice to you: Never quit. Don’t give up. Keep fighting and pushing until your senior leadership team gets the message. It’s your only way to move beyond zero.

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8 Responses to “The Narrow Minded CEO and The Smoking Gun”

  1. September 21st, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Jim W. Grymes says:

    I have been in the safety profession for 25 + years. Retired as the Director of OSH for Hawaiian Airlines and now have 10 years with Goodwill Industries of Hawaii and implemented a safety program from scratch. First thing I did at both positions is to “Throw Out” incentive programs. With much constrnation from a lot of people. The second thing I did was institute a formal “Near-miss” reporting system and what I called a “WHIP” program (Workplace Hazard Identification Program). It surprised a number of the “Old Timers” how a employee realizing that their direct in-put can make a major difference in the overall safety of a company really reinforced their participating in the program. All of my safety programs have been put together from ideas of the people working in the “trenches”. To make a long story short, your preaching to the choir! Great article from a 70 year old who is never too old to learn something new or think out of the box!

  2. September 21st, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Bobby Vucasovich says:


  3. September 22nd, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Suzanne Eshleman says:

    Thank you for your post, I have been struggling with improving our safety culture and have been roadblocked by management because they do not see the upfront investment as a long term savings. Our TRIR for 100 employees is at the highest it has ever been in my 6 years with this company. The owner, who is my father, is very old school and thinks exactly like the CEO of the plant described in your blog. I have been taught in University how to improve your Safety Culture and know that the lagging indicators are just symptoms of deeper underlying issues that left unresolved will never improve the culture. I have enlisted Safety Consultants to conduct a safety culture assessment with our company and to give advise based on the results to start the process of improving the culture. It is terribly difficult to convince old school management that it is cost and time effective and that not only will our safety culture improve but so will quality and production which ultimately leads to greater profits and client satisfaction. I am very grateful to have received your blog and will tune in more often!!

  4. September 22nd, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    GH says:

    I think your paragraph on Pink, “While I agree with many of the things Pink says, there are some areas that concern me. For example, his new book teaches that rewarding people for doing something well (with a pay raise or bonus, for instance) will rob them of their internal desire to repeat the same task in the future” is spot on.

    I’d like to see him stand up and suggest that companies start leading from the top and have boards remove the CEO’s bonus and stock options so that he/she won’t lose the internal desire to repeat another year of record profits. Or perhaps his prescription was only meant to apply to the worker bees, j/k.

  5. September 23rd, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    A.J Hale says:

    Good Day,

    I was reading an article in this months copy of OH&S by Bill Sims Jr.

    I must say I could not agree more with him. I have been in the EHS field for over 24 years and still see companies doing just this: Tell their employees that any injuries are unacceptable and what happens? No reports for the next month, and everyone sits back and goes “Look at our safety record!” No one stops and looks at the number of employees during breaks or at the end of the day who are rubbing shoulders, elbows or arms and then are going to the line and seeing employees stretching their necks or using a box or side of the machine to rest their legs. All the signs are right in front of them that their employees are hiding injuries and the employees have already made the choice to tell no one in fear of losing their jobs or the plant closing.

    I’m teaching a class next month on World Class Safety and talking about the subject of Safety vs. Manufacturing, finance and quality in the workplace, comparing them to show they are all not on equal ground. Meaning if something is wrong in manufacturing, finance or quality, it’s all hands on deck. Production is stopped, teams are formed, 8D’s are done until we find the corrective action to fix the concern, problem or customer defective part.

    Now lets look at the same concern, except it involves safety. I have to ask plant managers and production managers and what I hear is we have a safety person to take care of this, end of story. No teams, no problem solving, nothing.

    Sorry, I shall stop rambling on here, I just really like where Bill Sims is going with this article. Thank you, there is someone else out there that is seeing what I have seen as well.

    -A.J Hale.

  6. September 26th, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Bill Sims Jr. says:

    Hi Suzanne….
    Don’t give up! People like you are the last collective conscience of business! Changing mindsets and attitudes can be really tough. I would suggest that you review the short 15 minute video link at I believe it will help you…and you might want to sit down and review it with your father. I suggest you consider having me come conduct a half day PR+ Leadership workshop for your top leaders…it will help all of you get “on the same page” with safety and behavior change.

  7. September 26th, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Bill Sims Jr. says:

    Hi Bobby…

    A scalpel can cut your throat and kill you, or it can remove a brain tumor and save your life. We don’t blame scalpels for the outcome, we blame the surgeon. The same is true of any incentive system. It is only as good as the “surgeon”. Designed properly, incentive systems can accelerate behavior change without injury hiding—we’ve helped more than 1,000 big and small firms implement behavior based recognition systems, which achieve rapid behavior change (within a week or two) without injury hiding. If you want to know more about this just email us and we’ll sign you up for our free webinar on how we do this. Thanks for your comment!

  8. January 14th, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    Chris says:

    Bill, Thanks for your “Zero Injuries Is Not Your Goal” column in OH&S. I have been fundamentally trying to shift away from this thinking in my organization. As an antique “car guy” – my marque of choice happens to be Cadillac – I liked the way you introduced Deming and the analogy of the auto industry of the 1950s and 1960s. I write quarterly columns for internal use within my company, which as of late, have been targeting our leaders and challenging them to “walk the talk” with regard to recognizing, coaching, and changing behaviors within their facilities. I think my next column might have to have something to do with the auto industry! Thanks again. Chris – Director, EHS

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