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Scoring a Touchdown with Safety Culture with Dr. Josh Williams

Scoring a Touchdown with Safety Culture



“Improving safety culture is vital to long-term performance excellence.” We are very excited to have Dr. Josh Williams join us on the podcast this week to dive into how to bolster safety culture as he shares his insights into the five core competencies of safety leadership. Forward thinking leaders must continually consider ways to enhance safety culture. Explore ways to improve the effectiveness of your safe culture by visiting to complete the safety culture self-assessment uniquely created by Dr. Josh.


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies, ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C suite, it’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now. 

Hi, and welcome to the Safety Guru. Today I’m extremely excited to have with me Dr. Josh Williams, who’s probably one of our favorite guests on the podcast. He’s a great resource in terms of safety culture, safety leadership, and observation programs do a lot of work in this space. Josh, welcome to the show once again. 

Thanks, glad to be here. 

So, tell me a little bit again about your background and how you got interested and passionate about safety leadership, safety culture, the behavioral side of safety, and so forth. 

When I was in grad school, I was getting a Ph.D. in industrial organizational psychology, and honestly Eric, I was kind of bummed out. It just felt very theoretical. There’s a lot of statistical stuff. It was good, but it didn’t feel practical. And I had the chance to work with a guy named Scott Galler, whom many of the listeners may know was at the forefront of safety culture and behavior-based safety. He and a guy named Tom Kraus, formerly of BBS, really started behavior-based safety or at least popularized it. And it was great because we were doing real stuff with real people and I just immediately enjoyed it and the mission of two things, one, trying to keep people out of harm’s way, but also getting leaders to listen to folks a little more when making decisions. It just felt right. It felt like we were fighting a good fight and I’ve been doing it, I guess for 25-something years now.

Welcome back to the show. So, let’s start a little bit by talking about safety culture, why it matters, and you’ve authored a great quiz on safety culture. We’re going to talk about some of the themes within it that allow listeners to reflect, to see how they’re doing around safety culture and whether should they go deeper in terms of understanding how to drive improvements. But let’s start first in terms of why safety culture matter. 

Culture is everything. It really is. I’m going to struggle with a sports analogy here. I’m not a huge Alabama fan or a Nick Saban fan necessarily, but you’ve got to respect what he’s established. That Alabama. He comes in and just completely turned around a proud team that had fallen on hard times for many years. They were cycling through different coaches. He came in and it was an immediate turnaround and it stuck. I was watching the game a couple of years ago and I’ll make this as quick as I can, but I was just kind of flipping through channels and I see the score. Alabama beat New Mexico State 62 to ten. 


And they’re doing a press conference and Nick Saban is irate and he’s kind of containers anyway, but they’re asking him questions and he’s not happy. Why aren’t you happy, Nick? These are his quotes I went through and kind of went back and forth and wrote down almost verbatim. But these were his comments. We didn’t play up to our high standards for large parts of the game. We didn’t get better this week compared to last week. And when you don’t get better, you start developing bad habits and bad habits lead to problems down the road, especially against better opponents. And then his final comment was you’ve got to play to your own high standard every day. And that stuck with me because you know as well as I do, a lot of times we get called in because you have a rash of injuries and all we’ve got a problem, we’ve got to fix it. And people get so tied into these injury numbers and injury rates. The flip side is sometimes you could be doing really good on the injury numbers, but complacency is setting in. The normalized deviation is setting in. We haven’t seen it yet because nobody’s gotten hurt.

But the point I’m trying to make is playing to your own standard, having a culture of excellence in everything you do, doesn’t mean you’re perfect, and it doesn’t mean things aren’t going to go wrong. But you play to your standards and not some number, whether it went up or down last month, last quarter, this, that, or the other. So, I hope that makes sense to the listeners. It’s just that safety is part of who we are and how we operate, and we want to establish that culture of excellence it takes effort, it takes vision, it takes looking in the mirror. Safety culture assessments are big in large part because it gives people an opportunity to see where I am good. Where am I not so good? What’s the plan to get better? 

I think that’s a really important element and really getting a good view, talking to people about what was happening. What are the themes, how do we address them it, and how do we drive improvements? So, tell me about some of the themes in the quiz that you authored because I think it’s a good tool for listeners to have a quick scan to say how’s my culture? Not doing an assessment, just doing a quick scan self-reflection in terms of where I could get better. 

Yes, a lot of its own leadership, having that ownership mindset at the leadership level, it’s not EHS’s job, it’s everybody’s job but mine as a leader. I’m setting the tone for everybody. Active participation from employees. He talks about employee engagement. That’s the big buzzword. What’s this big mystery? It’s not that much of a mystery. Listen to your people, be responsive, and then advertise improvements based on their feedback. That’s how you get involved. It’s not some secret. It just takes effort and energy. Learning culture with close call reporting, making sure incident analysis is system-focused and not blame-oriented. And then other things like making sure rules make sense, they’re practical, having the right tools and equipment, et cetera. But leadership is really, in my mind, where a lot of it starts. And if I can just let me go through a couple of things really quick here. In terms of leadership competencies, we did a bunch of research looking at what are good predictors of effective leadership. And in terms of safety leadership, five core competencies come through. I’ll go through each R1 quickly. 


The first one is active caring. And of course, my mentor, Scott Gellard, used the term active carrying many years ago in reference to something that happened at ExxonMobil. People in a room, we’re asking questions. Why aren’t we doing X, Y, and Z ah? Nobody cares. Nobody cares. Then he started talking about it, that people care, but they weren’t doing something about it. So active caring is not just being a good guy or a good person. Active caring is going out and doing something. Quick example, I was working at a steel mill, not at an I was consulting for a company that was a steel mill, and they had an awful plan. Manager, old school, crack the whip, scare people off, rule by fear. It was a mess, and they fired them, which was a smart move. They bring in this new guy named Bob. And Bob’s, the first order of business is to set up meetings with everybody in this facility, and everybody is unhappy. 30 minutes. Meetings called 30 minutes with Bob. And not a sexy name for the meeting, but it got everybody in there, and he just asked people, what do you need? What can we do? 

And it was an immediate change in tone and immediate change in culture because this guy comes in and says, I want to hear from you. How can we get better? And so active caring is having the right intentions but doing something about it. Walking to talk, of course, is setting the right example and making sure you’re doing what you say you’re doing. So, for leaders, it’s being out in the field, listening to people, talking to people. Something as simple as wearing your PPE. I’ve seen that too. We’re going to do a couple of stories here. But we were at a facility, and this is 20 years ago. I’m dating myself, but we’re working with this company, and they are struggling. I mean, they can’t even get PPE. People are fighting over hearing protection glasses. So, we’re making some progress. And then they interviewed the CEO who was talking to Morley Safer. It was a big show, like 20 2016 minutes. One of those, anyway, he’s in the middle of operations with four trucks flying around talking about profits and how they were successful financially with no PPE on zero during operations. And we’re like, oh my God, that was it.

All the progress excuses me, with PPE out the window immediately. So, walking the talk is not just having nice corporate messaging. It’s doing what you say you’re going to do. Here’s another example in terms of leadership and listening to your people and how you’re treating them. I’m in a big facility that creates these small little bearings for vehicles. I think I didn’t remember now, but this is again, many years ago, and they had a guy who cuts his head open, and they’re doing an incident investigation, and the plant manager is in there and he asked the guy, why didn’t you have your hard hat on? That’s a requirement. And the guy says to him, I thought I did. I had my baseball cap on it. I followed my heart hat and is telling the story. And the plan manager stops the, quote, investigates, goes on a PA system and says literally to everybody, attention all employees. Baseball caps are no longer allowed in the building. You have ten minutes to return all baseball caps to your vehicles, and effective immediately, they’re no longer allowed in the building.


Anyway, people are like, what’s going on? They go to their cars and trucks and whatever, throw their caps and come back in. They’re not happy. They’re grumbling about it. And anyway, so the next day they come in, and most people, and of course not wearing their caps, but one little section of this big building, this big factory, they kind of did a mini revolt. They came in, no baseball caps, but they had on cowboy hats. One guy had a football, one guy had an authentic Mexican. Sombrero from Tijuana, the little tassels come down and they’re their jobs doing their work. And it was their way of saying, this isn’t right. And the point manager was smart, and he kind of pumped the brakes on that and they had some discussions and made some changes. But it kind of goes to show you people don’t like being told what to do. And oftentimes you have an injury and all of a sudden, what do you do? Okay, we’re going to retrain the employee. We’re going to throw a new rule out there. Then all of a sudden, you got 61 million rules. So, I think you got to be careful with how we handle that. 

Again, watch the knee-jerk reactions. Listen to your people, and just be smart about implementing new things and building and living. The vision is the next one. So, you’ve got a vision, you share that vision. People feel that vision. It’s legitimate, it’s real, it’s authentic. Recognition is another part of it. Number four is reward and foster growth. When we provide appreciation and sincere recognition, two things happen. One, I’m more likely to do it next time. That’s why we give our kids allowances. It’s like, you did good, here’s a financial reward. Now the reward and recognition don’t have to be money appreciation. I think the default recognition is not a program, although it can be good. Default recognition is just appreciation. People working hard under difficult circumstances, they got a lot going on in their personal lives. There’s a lot of stuff happening when you see people going beyond the call of duty, in particular for safety, mentoring a newer employee, etc. E. A little pad on the background again, goes a long way. People appreciate being appreciated. So, the last one is driving thinking and speaking. People that are on the job, doing the job know what’s going on. 

And if we listen to what they’re saying, it doesn’t mean we’re going to do everything they recommend. But people understand what’s going on and we’ve got to drive that ground-level engagement and participation to be successful. Another quick example is Eric. The same steel mill I mentioned earlier had a problem lockout tag out. They called it lockout tag out tryout. And the challenge was people weren’t doing it. And in a steel mill, if you’re not locking something out, you can get hurt or killed in that area. It’s dangerous. So the supervisor is like, okay, well, we’re going to if we don’t, they start threatening people. One of the employees had a suggestion to get a team together and talk about the issue. Just, let’s just take a step back. And when they did, they found where you were locked out was not in the appropriate place. The rules for lockout tag out were convoluted and hard to understand different opinions on how to do it. By simply getting together, they shortened the process of how it was done. They made everything closer to the person to make it easier to save time because they had ridiculous production pressure. 

But the solution was made from an employee’s suggestion to change the system. Don’t just come down with a heavier hammer. So, driving thinking and speaking is a big part of getting that engagement and improving the overall safety culture. 

It makes a lot of sense, and a lot of focus in terms of leadership as a key lever to drive improvements in culture. What are some of the other things? Leadership obviously really is the key lever to drive change around safety culture. But in some cases, culture can be also a legacy. Could be something that comes from the past. 20 years ago, a CEO did X and it’s still in the present memory and it’s still shaping the behaviors, the choices, and the attitudes of people.

This episode of the Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety, and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, reenergize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit us at 

100%. And the first thing I’ll say is the system. So, if you want to look at it holistically. Big picture. If you’re trying to get more predictable results with your incident rates, it doesn’t fluctuate out of control. If you want to get more control over that and also improve sift prevention, three things to look at are one mindset, and attitudes. Number two, your behavior, what people are looking for. Number three is the system. And for many years, particularly in the house Ion days of BBS, the system was taking a backseat. And if we don’t focus on the system, we have problems. So, systems are things like when things go wrong, our first response should be, where did the system fail? Don’t blame somebody. Where did the system fail? It could be excessive time pressure. It could be we don’t have enough people for this job. It could be we don’t have the right tools and equipment readily available to do it. It could be we got a bunch of boring online training. When I first hired on, I don’t remember any of it, and now I’m throwing the wolves out there. Those system factors are big, and I think organizational leaders are well served to focus on tightening up those systems as a close call, reporting behavior-based safety. 

These are systems and when the systems are running smoothly and we’re getting ongoing communication up and down the organization, everything else works better. And by the way, it’s easier for leaders to hold people accountable. We talk about positive accountability. You don’t want to be heavy-handed, but you also can go too far the other way and let everything slide. And when your standards drop, the injuries pop up too. My point on that is, as a leader, if I know my systems are tight and most people are doing the right thing, when you have outliers that are repeatedly not doing the right thing or doing egregious things, it’s easier to punish, quite frankly, because we understand we’ve got our system. It’s not the system that’s the challenge. We’ve got that figured out. So, I think system factors are a big, big part of it, I would say on the other side too. On the behavior side, we know from National Safety Council 9 that 5% of all injuries do in part to add risk behavior. That doesn’t mean blaming people now, but it just means risky actions. You’re increasing the probability of something going wrong, basically. And if we can minimize risky behavior, that can be done in a lot of ways.

One, engage people more behavior-based safety. I just mentioned we did a study with NIOS many years ago. Picture this, Eric, me and a bunch of other grad students are going into this environment doing training with these guys, looking at us like, who are you, youngsters? We’re going and doing this training with two different groups and they’re not either one is really happy, but we do our training, and then we implement a behavior-based safety process. So, you’ve got if you’re familiar with behavior-based safety, folks, the cards, you’ve got various things like proper tools and equipment, body position, things like that. Anyway, one group was given a card and said, go use it. The other group, we work with them to create their own card, how it was going to be used when it was going to be used, and where it was going to be used. That group that had their own card that they created themselves, we call it the ownership group used their card seven times more.

Seven times more. 

We were shocked. If we had gotten double, we would have fallen out of our seats seven times more. Said very clearly, employee engagement matters. And I think people want to get more involved, and they want to speak up with each other more too. On one of the surveys, they used to use years ago, one of the questions is, should you tell somebody if they’re being risky? 90% of people are saying, yeah, you should tell them. The next question on the survey is, do you, do it? And it was like 660-something percent.


So, to me, that’s an eye-opener. I want to get involved, but our culture is macho. You do your thing; I do my thing. Don’t tell me how to do my job, all that nonsense. So, we want to do it, and sometimes we’re reluctant to speak up. So, I think part of that learning culture we talked about too, is making it acceptable and normal to speak up with each other. It doesn’t have to be a supervisor or safety when they see something that doesn’t quite feel right. So, there are just a couple of thoughts there. Make sure we don’t get focused on one thing. Focus on attitudes and behaviors and the system.

I love that safety culture is something that’s widely discussed and accepted. How do you measure it? The right way.

The wrong way is to give somebody 150 items, as a survey, and everybody goes to fill it out. That’s the wrong way. Surveys are good, but they’re a good tool. But they’re only one tool out of many. So of course, when we do our assessments, we focus on talking to people and interviewing people, whether it’s in groups, whether it’s one on one. But we’ve got questions that we’re asking on important things like learning culture and leadership, things like that. But people will tell you, and we use a survey to supplement that. But that gives us an overall picture. When we do it. We’ve got our maturity model, and it goes from disengaged a citizen, and there are various steps in between, but it shows you where you are, where is your starting point, and what’s your baseline. Because if you’re trying to get better, you got to know where you stand. And those assessments do a good job of that, and it also affects what you can do. So if your maturity is low, you don’t want to be trying to shoot the moon, doing all kinds of crazy stuff. You need the basic foundational stuff to try to get better. If you’re further along, you’re more advanced.

You can start doing things like human performance, or we call it Bhop, behavioral safety, and human performance. Those kinds of things are more achievable if you’re further along the road. So those assessments are really good. The other thing I’ll say on that too, and I’ve seen this with other organizations that kind of do what we do is sometimes that’s the end of it. Here’s your 1165-page report. Enjoy it. Also, if you have any questions, we’re here for you. And that’s it. Of course, we do. Planning all that information you get, all that is ammunition for your plan, like, what are we going to do? And that’s where you get groups together. We recommend getting hourly folks involved, field folks involved, and union folks involved. We’ve got a union at some levels, and we plan it out. All right, so this is good. Got to keep doing that. This is not good. Got to get better. What are we going to do? And line it all out. And sometimes, as you know, we’ll do five-year plans with it. It could be simple, it could be complicated, but what are we going to do?

What are the three, or four big things we got to get done? Who is going to do it? When are we going to do it? Where do we need to help? What potential resistance is there? And by lining everything out, very specifically, going back to Nick Savin. He didn’t roll into College Station to play Texas A and M winging it. Let’s see what works here. They’ve got the plan, and they’ve got contingency plans if plan A is not working. So, part of the preparation for getting better is to understand where you’re at and get a smart strategic plan.

Moving forward, a couple of things just come to mind based on what you just shared. So, one for me is it’s not a safety culture assessment if you don’t have a combination of surveys with interviews and focus groups kicking the tires in terms of how the work gets done at a site level, and then finally, also looking at artifact reviews, looking at how is a culture shaped by system items. Any thoughts on that? Because to me, that’s the part is a lot of people do one part of this and think it’s a safety culture assessment, but it’s only by looking at all those three elements can you really assess the culture. In my mind, 100% a part of it.

That too is talking to executives. Sometimes there’s a heavy focus on field employees, which is good. We’ll do system assessments with executives like we’ll do artifact reviews. You say close-call reporting is good. Show us what you’re doing. I don’t mean that to be challenging. But sometimes reality and perceptions aren’t always the same. So, I think speaking more to executives and getting some tangibles in terms of stuff that you’re doing also gives you a more complete picture.

Okay. The other part that drives me bonkers when we’re talking about surveys is an obsession with benchmarking. I want to compare myself with everybody else in my industry, and I get that, for example, in employee engagement surveys. But because of the nature of surveys in safety culture, I’m not saying there’s no value in it, but my challenge is too often I’ve seen a company that has lower maturity from a safety culture standpoint, have higher scores and a really good maybe have lower scores because as you get better, you start becoming more self-critical. And if you know very little about what you could look like or should look like, you might look very positive.

Yeah, I’m with you. I mean, I think benchmarking is a nice thing to have, but people take way too much faith in that. As I said, I’ve seen the same thing. Some awful organization, they get a bunch of vests and they’re like, oh my god, they care about us. You should have had vests 15 years ago, man. It can be misleading. And sometimes the really, really good organizations are more critical because they have the mindset of excellence, and they may raise themselves lower than they really are. So, I get your point there. I think it’s nice to have, but I’m more interested, frankly, in various iterations of the survey. Like five years ago we were here, two years ago we were here. And I think that’s something that’s smart too for companies. It’s not a one-and-done deal. You do an assessment, see how much you’ve progressed, do another one, two, or three years later. It doesn’t have to be as intent. It can be on a smaller scale, but that to me is more interesting. And also, comparisons between groups, whether, for instance, managers are telling us this, employees are telling us something different, and the scores on the survey may be quite different sometimes the higher you go anyway, so that’s one issue. 

And also, different groups. Maintenance is saying this, operations are saying that. And so the scores are interesting when they’re different, but also the comments from the interviews in the focus groups. So again, I think the best benchmarking is within your own organization, and also from the time one to time two to time three.

And I think the points you bring up there I think are important because it’s looking at even between-group differences. You have an overall culture, but you could have a microculture within a particular environment. We had somebody on the podcast that had a serious injury, and he came from an organization that had, by all accounts, a fairly, fairly mature safety culture. But in his specific area, there were a lot of challenges from a leadership standpoint, and people showed up in a very, very different, noncongruent way from the rest of the organization. So, understanding those differences, as you said, I think is incredibly important. The other element is longitudinally understanding how we’re shifting. I love pulse surveys as an indicator of how we’re making progress, even with higher frequency. So, as you’re driving improvements to check or is it landing with employees, are we actually seeing the impact? If I’m doing leadership training, am I feeling my leader showing up in a different way?

100% and that’s hard. I can add more really quick here too, in terms of how our leaders show up. Executive coaching, I think, is a big one. And just from experience, when we’re able to get into higher levels of the organization and talk to people, at the executive level, it’s different and it doesn’t mean it’s always easy, but that sets the tone. And again, I think sometimes with assessments, in particular, we miss the mark as we only talk to the EHS director, which is a very important position, but there are a lot of things that are also happening at the C-suite level that we need to address. So, I think executive coaching, when it’s paired with assessment-type work, is really good because you’ve got a strategic plan, and you need help from the top to get there. I don’t care who you are. So that’s something I think to consider as well.

And it also relates back to your story when you’re talking about Bob, who came into me, is when a new leader comes in and needs to show change, it’s very important to have a good strategy around what signals are you going to share. Because we talked about how culture can be based on something that happened 20 years ago in the organization that’s still in the present memory. So how does a leader come in and send some very intentional signals to show things have changed? I am going to show up differently or we’re going to show up differently.


So, great place to start. I love your quiz. so that’s a website. No gimmicks, no catches, completely anonymous. It just allows you to ask a couple of questions, 15 questions in total. To give you a bit of a sense in terms of where you’re at, should you consider some improvements, what are some of the areas of focus? So it’s definitely not a safety culture assessment, it’s just a personal self-reflection to see how my organization is doing. So, I encourage people to go and visit their website, try it out, and get a few simple insights. And Josh, I’m sure they can always reach out to you if they want to have more conversations about, what does it mean, how do I make improvements, and how do I know where I’m at?

100% and I’ll give you more sports analogies.

So, Josh, thank you so much for joining us. Once again, I really appreciate you sharing yours. Wisdom around safety leadership, safety culture, and again, recommend anybody to go to the website No gimmicks. Just a good self-reflection quiz to say how am I doing? You’ll find links as well to all sorts of other quizzes that Josh has authored that help you look at different facets of safety culture, safety leadership, learning organizations, and so forth to see how you’re doing. So once again, thank you so much, Josh, for joining me today.

My pleasure. Thank you.

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the past. Grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo consulting.

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Dr. Josh Williams is a partner at Propulo Consulting. For more than 20 years, Josh has partnered with clients around the world to improve safety culture and prevent SIFs. Dr. Williams earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Virginia Tech and is a behavioral safety, human performance, and safety culture improvement expert. Josh is the author of Keeping People Safe: The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention and co-editor of Keys to Behavior Based Safety. He has published more than 150 book chapters, government reports, white papers, blogs and articles in leading journals. Josh has also delivered hundreds of presentations at leading national conferences and is a highly regarded public speaker. He received the Cambridge Center National First Prize for his research on behavioral safety feedback.

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