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Safety Incentives with Dr. Josh Williams



For years, organizational leaders have used incentives to try and motivate safety. The rationale is that providing financial rewards for not getting hurt will motivate employees to “try harder” for safety. 

In reality, this often encourages non-reporting which is why OSHA now discourages outcome-based incentives. Plus, people are already motivated to avoid injury. 

Effective incentives, if used, should focus on proactive safety behaviors and efforts. 

​Rewards should be symbolic and safety themed. 

Genuine appreciation and recognition trump all other incentives.  

Take the quiz below to see how well you’re managing safety incentives. 

Please try our Free Safety Incentives Quiz:


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 The 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, where we explore topics around operations, leadership and particularly the role of leaders in driving safety in their business. I’m Eric Michrowski president and CEO of Propulo and also the host of this show. Today on our show we have Dr. Josh Williams. He’s a partner in human performance and business transformation at Propulo Consulting. Josh, so great to have you on the show today.

I appreciate it, Eric. Thanks. Glad to be here.

That’s great. So, Josh has an impressive background. He has a Ph.D. in psychology from Virginia Tech. He’s worked over 20 years in the space around safety culture, one of the pioneers in this space, his broad range of client experience that ranges in clients from aerospace, pharmaceutical, military, oil and gas, utilities, manufacturing. And the list goes on. He’s co-authored a book, authored his own book and has over 40 publications in his name, a really impressive range of expertise.

He’s presented at over a 100 conferences and other presentations on the topic of safety and safety culture. He also is one the Cambridge Center National Prize on Behavioral Safety. Wow. Josh, an impressive background. So impressive to have you on the show today.

I appreciate it. Thank you.

So, tell me a little bit about how you got to where you are, what got you into the safety culture space.

Yeah, so I was in graduate school and kind of working my way through there, trying to get my piece of paper, frankly. And midway through, I was a bit frustrated. Everything seemed very ivory tower and kind of academic, you know, I appreciated it, but it wasn’t for me. I met a guy named Scott Geller who was me became my advisor. So, I worked with him and it was much more of real life going out into organizations, trying to help out fight the good fight, doing some good things there.

So that’s kind of how I came into the safety world was through Scott Geller. And so that was kind of my initial introduction.

That’s excellent. It’s impressive. And your client list and the type of work that you’ve done and the impacts you have of those organizations as well. Very impressive. Today, we want to focus on a topic that’s really near and dear to so many of our listeners. It’s a topic around safety incentives. So, let’s go first to a quick commercial break and they’ll be right back. Thank you. Thank you for listening to The Safety Guru. This is your host, Eric Michrowski.

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Thank you.

Like what we do here, this is your Socials and tell everyone.

So today we’re here to talk about safety incentives. I know this is a topic that so many leaders struggle with, because if you nail it right, you can get the right impact on the business. And if you don’t, you can start causing all sorts of harm in your business, such as underreporting things of that nature. You’ve also authored a quiz, which I think is phenomenal, that helps leaders self-assess in terms of where they’re at and what actions they should do.

It’s completely free. We’re going to talk about it more. But if you’re interested, just go to human performance leader Dotcom, human performance leader, Dotcom. So, Josh, maybe let’s kick off by you sharing a little bit of your perspective over the years around what you’ve seen it that works well in the safety in cyberspace.

Well, I think one of the hardest things is incentives. Everybody struggles with him and the challenges that leaders have good intentions. They say safety matters to me is important to me is a core value, but they don’t know how to show it. And so sometimes mistakenly, especially, you know, 10, 15 years ago, you throw money at it. So, if you go if you all don’t go, you know, get her for the next three months, six months or a year, we’re going to give you money. 

And that’s our way of showing you that we care. Unfortunately, what that led to was people hiding stuff. I mean, I get hurt. And now not only am I going to lose my money, I might lose your money. And so just a quick example. I don’t know, maybe two or three years ago, we were doing some work with a company up in Canada. And they had a situation where if everyone went an entire month without getting injured, they got a gift card or for gas, it was like a gas voucher, maybe seventy-five dollars something.

And this is when gas prices were really high. So, it was a big deal. People were excited about it. They appreciated the incentive. Unfortunately, a woman was walking by her office, slipped on the ice they had and so slipped on the ice, fell down in front of everybody, had a tailbone injury, whatever the medical term for that’s called. So, she got hurt. She had the embarrassment of falling in front of everybody and she cost them their gift card.

They were upset with her. People made comments to her say, and you blue are incentives. So that’s the reality. What happens is people start hiding stuff. Small things can turn into bigger injuries because we didn’t deal with in the first place. So, as you know, Eric, you know, OSHA has kind of come down on those outcome-based incentives because frankly, they just motivate the wrong thing despite the right intentions.

I completely agree. I remember a story of somebody who shared with me several years ago, and it was about somebody that had been injured quite severely on the last day of the month. And the crew, this was a mine site, had put the person on a truck and driven away without anybody knowing and then waited till the next morning to bring that person to the hospital so that the recordable injury would pass into the next period and not impact their business.

So that’s just frightening to hear things of that nature. So, in your experience, are there certain things that leaders should be looking for when they’re creating an incentive program?

Yeah, the first and I’ll just touch on this is executive compensation. If leaders are getting a bunch of money for people not getting hurt, that’s something to consider. And that’s a topic for another day. In the immediate term for employees, process based is the way to go. And that’s what leading organizations are now doing. If you’re going the route of incentives, make it focused on what you actually doing. So close call reporting, safety suggestions, behavioral cards, human performance cards, whatever.

The point is, we’re rewarding specific actions, behaviors that we’re doing to try to get to our endgame. So being more process based is the first step in. The second step is focusing on quality. And that’s where sometimes we have issues there, too, because now all of a sudden, if I’m getting some kind of incentive for filling out cards, that’s great. But then I start pencil whipping through these cards for the incentive without putting a lot of time into it.

So, I think it’s important for leaders if we’re going that route or if you have process-based incentives, that’s fine. Focus on the quality. Good cards were being done, good conversations, leading safety meetings, etc. So, I think if we’re going that route again, don’t focus on the quota’s, focus on the quality of what people are doing.

That’s excellent. So, I’m a leader. I have a safety incentive program in place at this moment. I start realizing after listening to you or playing on the quiz to understand kind of how I’m doing that maybe I need to change things. What should I do? Because if I start removing incentives, I could have my team rebelling against me because they’re saying I want those incentives to show up safely. What would be your guidance to a leader?

Yeah, I think keeping the incentives it’s tricky because like, once you’ve got incentives, you’re sort of stuck with him. And it is tricky to get out. And if you’ve got outcome based, start switching to process. If you got process based, that’s fine. But focus on the HWI. The Big Five is what we. Call it four, why are we doing is the point of it, is going home safe to your friends and family? It’s not about payoff.

So, if you’re doing, you know, prizes, first aid kits are great. If you want to have some kind of celebration, have a safety fair where you bring in your family, you can do, you know, all kinds of hearing, testing and other things. But the emphasis is on safety and going home safe, your family and that we care about you. So, we just got to make sure that we’re emphasizing the right things and don’t have it seen as a, you know, a payoff.

Or a lot of leaders talk about management by objectives. They talk about how what you incentivize will get done. How do you deal with a team member that says, well, you’re not pay me my bonus to stay safe, so why should I stay safe?

That’s an issue. And there’s a big larger issue there, too, because, look, pay people more money on the front end. Really, you want to get better performance, not only having the right culture, but get the right people in the first place. There’s a whole lot that goes into the concern is trying to throw money at people is a quick fix. It is not solving the bigger problem. So, there’s got to be other things that need to be done.

Let me give you a couple if I can ask a couple of quick examples of some good things that were done. One organization where I’m from and where I live now and kind of southwest Virginia had a bunch of money, they were going to use for a poster campaign. And that’s great. But some of these signs and posters like I’ve seen some that are I saw a poster at a refinery that said think safety. And the whole thing was all kinds of rusted out, dirty, nasty.

It’s sending the wrong message. What they did was give the money to employees. They had everyone they shut down all operations. They brought in everybody into a big room. They had markers, flip charts, and they did a campaign, do your own posters. So, the money they had dedicated for that they gave as prizes to their employees. And it was, you know, not a big amount. Hundred dollars, fifty dollars per second something. But it was really fun.

And I sat in on it and there was not a lick of talent and that entire building, but it was fun and they were engaged. They had posters once they were done over the entire facility. The winning poster was like a Forrest Gump tribute face, like safety is a safety does with some guy running with a box of chocolates and hearing protection, whatever. But that’s a good example of a fun thing that’s done for the right way. Companies will do stickers for hard hats.

One company donated money to the Boys and Girls Club. So quick example, observation cards, rather than me getting a personal benefit. That money was donated every time a card was done, a small portion was donated to a local charity and that was real. They raised 40000 dollars in a couple of months. So those are some examples, maybe some ideas of when we’re going the incentive route. That’s what we should be focused on.

So, I just want to point any of the listeners, if you’re interested in kind of self-reflection in terms of how you’re doing around safety incentives, go to human performance leader dotcom, human performance leader, Dotcom. You’re going to go through a quick quiz. Completely free. No obligations, nothing come out. It’s just about sharing some ideas, some insights so you can see how you’re doing and then stack up against some of the leaders in this space and decide what are the right action plans.

We’re going to be right back in a second to talk a little bit more with Josh on what you can do next around. Senator, thank you. So, we’re back with some more with Dr. Josh Williams. So here we’re talking about safety and Sennett’s today. I don’t have a safety incentive program in place currently. And I want to know, after hearing what you had to say, going through and going through your quiz and reflecting on it, I so realizing that I have a behavior-based safety program and I need to do something to improve the quality of the reporting, what should I do first?

That’s a good question, especially with behavioral safety observations. Again, focusing on the quality. You can sometimes, of course, with people’s permission first is kind of show people examples of good comments, because that’s a good measure of quality, is what are the comments that are being made and really having discussions around what people are seeing out there, you know, in the start of the tail board meetings during the day, formally, informally, I think if you’re going to start doing an incentive program, one thing to consider is get input from people that are on the job doing the job.

They know what’s going on. They know what they want and they appreciate it. You’re going to get more involvement when you’ve got folks that are saying, well, let’s do this or we’d like to see this, keeping in mind we’re going to have a process focused and quality focused. And another thing quickly is unannounced rewards are a nice thing. There’s you didn’t tell me was coming all of a sudden, I have a pizza party. Not a big deal, but you’re getting folks together show an appreciation.

You guys have been working hard. No one’s getting hurt. Y’all are doing the right things. We just want to say a quick thank you here. Some pizza. Don’t forget the power of some of those unannounced, informal things. It doesn’t have to be programmatic when you’re going that route.

Great. And before I get to last thoughts. He talked about pizza parties. So, what happens if something didn’t go well in the last month or quarter? Should I still do a pizza party or should I just be if I do really well?

Look, it depends on what went wrong. I mean, if and I think we’ve got to be careful with punishment and that that’ll be another podcast. You know, if something goes wrong with their system factors involved, too often it’s easy to point the finger and say, well, they screwed up. They may have, but there may have been a lot of other reasons behind it. So that’s why I kind of mentioned the unannounced part.

I mean, we can still have a party. We can have a teachable moment to use. Use that term again with permission. We don’t want to be disrespectful to folks, but I think we still celebrate lots of good things that have happened because we don’t you know, I don’t think one misstep necessarily should screw everything up.

Thank you so much, Josh. The absolutely fantastic. Any closing thoughts around the topic of safety incidents before we part?

Yeah, I think, you know, everybody wants to be appreciated. People want to be respected. They want to be recognized. They want to enjoy work. They want to feel like, you know, all these things. They don’t cost companies money. They cost time because you got to spend time out there with your folks. They don’t cost money. So, I hope you know the listeners. You know, my final thoughts would be positive feedback, recognition, appreciation.

Like these people. Someone’s been doing this job 35 years. It’s their identity. It’s who they are showing respect, show appreciation, thank them for doing the right things. And I think if we and this is not just touchy feely, this is behavioral science. When you’re trying to influence behavior, it’s not just cracking the whip, praising the right things, rewarding the right things, increases the probability will happen in the future. So, I hope we keep that in mind that praise and recognition have a better work environment, but it also leads to more positive safety behaviors that in turn prevents sniffs.

So, recognition appreciation is the ultimate incentive.

Thank you so much. I couldn’t agree more. The whole thought topic of recognition rewards is so underutilized to really reinforce the things you want to see more often. So today on The Safety Guru, we’ve had Dr. Josh Williams, an absolute expert. Absolute pleasure having you on the show today. And if you haven’t already done so, I’d encourage you to go to Human Performance Leader Dotcom Free Quiz will only take you a couple of minutes. We’ll give you some great insights on how you’re doing around your incentives and maybe some ideas and some strategies to take forward.

And if you got more questions, Dr. Josh Williams is such a generous person with his time and his ideas so committed to the space. Thank you so much for listening to The Safety Guru. Thank you.

Thank you for listening to The Safety Guru on C-Suite radio. Leave a legacy, distinguish yourself from the pack, grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your team’s. Fuel your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops guru Eric Michrowski.

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For more than 20 years, Josh has partnered with clients around the world to deliver customized, sustainable solutions 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 50 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.

A sample of Josh’s recent projects include delivering a series of motivational presentations, conducting comprehensive strategic planning sessions, and managing safety culture assessments and improvement activities.

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