Taking an Upstream Approach

Let's be very specific, very focused, and let's go recognize people for when they're doing right.'

Editor's note: Ninety percent of safety managers understand the need for proactive behavior based safety recognition, but many of them find their recognition strategy is still the old school, says Bill Sims, Jr., president of Bill Sims Award of Excellence in Columbia, S.C. (bill@8006901860.com or 800-690-1860). He discussed the concept of proactive recognition in a Jan. 26, 2005, conversation with Occupational Health & Safety's editor. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

Bill Sims, Jr.: I've coined the term "behavior based safety recognition," which is, I think, a new term. I think that really in the year 2005 what we're helping companies do, is not safety incentive programs. I don't like the term, I'm trying to stamp it out of my vocabulary. And I'm instead focusing and preaching on the need for behavior based safety recognition. That is something that people can grasp and understand, hopefully fairly quickly because they're familiar with behavior based safety observation.

Yes, that term is pretty well understood by our audience. The recognition part they might not be familiar with. What are you thinking of?

Sims: The term safety incentive really has a negative connotation for many managers and employees.

Yes, it does.

Sims: It conjures up visions of Pavlov and dogs salivating over cookies. And the common response is, 'I shouldn't have to pay people for being safe, they ought to do it anyway.' What we've focused on instead is behavior based safety recognition, which means, we're not going to incentivize you. We're going to tell you what the safe behaviors are that we want you to give us. Whatever the training topic for the month is. So, for instance, if it's lifting safely, we want you to lift with the legs, not the back. We want you to wear a back belt if that's required for your job. So in behavior based safety recognition, then, we want to empower managers, safety committee members, and even our employees to say to a co-worker, 'Hey, Joe, you know, the behavior for the month that we're looking for is lifting with the legs, not the back. I just saw you do that. Here's a little scratchoff for you, or here's a little card for you. And thanks.'

So the focus is, I'm telling Joe he did it right. I'm telling him what he did right instead of what he does wrong, which is all too often what safety managers wind up doing. They're the guys who have to come around telling people what they did wrong.

We're actively in the British and overseas markets developing this whole concept there. They are just now beginning to see that you can hit people with a big stick over the head, but they'll keep doing things the safe way only as long as the safety guy is around with the big stick. When the safety guy leaves with the big stick, they go right back to not wearing their hard hats and their safety glasses.

The approach we take is the positive one and we pioneered that approach back in 1981. The whole idea was 'Hey, instead of kicking people in the rear, let's pat them on the back.' Because, as we say in the South, you catch more flies with sugar than vinegar.

What we're really saying is, let's be very specific, very focused, and let's go recognize people for when they're doing right. And let's understand that when we ask people what they want most from their job, even though managers think people always want a bigger paycheck, surveys say the number one biggest need employees have is a pat on the back. More money is only number five.

You can really use a behavior based safety recognition program to build morale of your employees as a whole and to reduce the risk in the workplace by increasing the number of safe behaviors.

It all sounds very good. It sounds like wall-to-wall safety: Everybody at a facility would have a role in a program like that, wouldn't they?

Sims: The biggest thing that we see is so many managers are trapped in the old school approach to safety incentives. Which says, 'Hey guys, you've made it a million man hours, here's your barbecue dinner and your T-shirt.' They're stuck in the 1960s, and that was the way the first 'safety incentive' programs worked.

What we find is that tons of them now are saying, 'I'm at zero lost time injuries. Measuring zero doesn't really help me improve and get to the next level. I've got to go with these upstream measures.' Things like, did you turn in a safety suggestion? Did you take ownership of the idea and implement it? Let's reward and recognize that. . . .

The proactive part of it I certainly can see. It sounds like it's very attuned to companies that already have excellent safety programs. Does it also work for someone who has a pretty rotten safety program?

Sims: Five years ago I would say, 'You don't need a safety recognition program until you've got a good safety program.' Now, I say that we can help bring your overall safety program up on a par with the best practices of our clients. For instance, when we talk about rewarding employees who return to a light duty assignment as opposed to laying out and milking workman's comp, we're going to help the client--as a byproduct of developing a recognition for that--we're going to help them develop a return-to-work light duty program.

When we talk about rewarding employees for coming in and completing monthly safety training, for instance watching video, taking tests, we're going to help that client come up to the standard of a monthly or weekly safety meeting.

In other words, when a company that doesn't have a safety program calls us up, what they will find is we will very quickly identify gaps where they are not doing things right. There are some best practices that we share with them. . . . It's just sort of a lateral benefit that they get.

It's a pretty big lateral benefit, I would think.

Sims: I would think. We don't charge for it.

One of the things our articles try to impart is, the incentive program has to be incorporated into a much larger safety program; this one element really won't work very well all by itself. That's what you're saying, right?

Sims: I'm saying you've got to have safety committees, you've got to have safety training, you've got to have return-to-work, you've got to have accident investigation. Everybody who's in safety knows those are some of the fundamentals.

What I'm simply saying is, in the year 2005, when a company comes to us, we're going to be looking at not only how their recognition strategy works, but also asking them, what's your return-to-work policy and program? What's this? What's that? There are going to be some 800-pound gorillas that leap off the page to me when I talk to those people. And I'm going to say, you need to call this client, and he'll tell you how to set up return-to-work. You need to call this friend of mine who'll show you this or that. And that very quickly helps companies build a safety program.

I guess what I'm saying is, you have to have way more than a safety recognition program to effect change, and yet I don't think that there's a real need to wait three of four years to get all of that done and then start safety recognition. I think you can do it all today.

I mean, what's the price of waiting? I talked with a municipal government yesterday in Florida that had $2 million in comp costs on 1,000 employees and 110 lost-time injuries. And that is typical of municipalities. So many of them have humongous safety problems.

And their thought process was, 'Well, let's try everything but recognition programs and see what impact we can make. And then we'll try recognition.'

Suppose you have an elephant and he's charging at you--and that is an elephant-sized problem--and you've got two bazookas you can shoot him with and a BB gun. My argument is, let's throw everything at that elephant we can that can bring it down. If we know that a recognition program cuts injuries, oftentimes 30 or 40 percent, then let's throw that into the mix. Let's throw return-to-work, accident investigation, let's throw everything we've got at the problem. Because every year that goes by, every lost-time injury that we didn't catch and stop is a $27,000 problem, according to the National Safety Council.

Did the municipality you were speaking with like this idea?

Sims: Their response was that they would go in two steps. They would first focus on basic safety management and return-to-work and light duty. And then they would come back and revisit, nine months later, a recognition program.

What you're outlining is similar to what federal OSHA is doing. They're still doing enforcement, but they're de-emphasizing that and emphasizing cooperation, VPP, and recognition of excellence. They seem to have the same ideas. Do you think the two are similar?

Sims: Yes. When you go back in time and you look at the OSHA opinion on recognition programs, OSHA is against the old-school, traditional safety incentive programs, which say that a group of employees must work 90 days to get a jacket, or a cash payout, or what have you. And OSHA is for the non-traditional, proactive, upstream approaches.

Well, if that's what OSHA says, and then in fact all management sees is OSHA coming in and fining them and laying punitive measures on them because every T isn't crossed and I isn't dotted, A, and B, the inspections are all tied to downstream numbers.

It's kind of hard for OSHA to preach being upstream and proactive when in reality they're downstream and reactive. I think what they must be trying to do is embrace that upstream, proactive, pat-you-on-the-back approach. And I think that's great.

Someone once said, you're either running from fear, running from pain, or running towards pleasure. You will run much longer, harder, and faster towards pleasure than you ever will from pain. And I think that's kind of what this whole thing's about.

You mentioned earlier that too many safety managers are stuck in 1960s thinking about these programs. I think that's true of a lot of people in this business. What do you think the size of these two camps is? Who's ready for this message, and what's the size of the camp that needs to be nudged along?

Sims: When I began in 1981 approaching clients with the idea of handing an employee a Safety Buck because he did something right, I would say less than one out of 10 managers had that vision. I would say today, nine out of 10 managers get it. While they get it and understand the need for proactive behavior based safety recognition, many of them find that their recognition strategy is still the old school. It's still the dinners or the pizza party for a period of time worked, or it's tied to trailing indicators.

When we look at why they're struggling with that, here are some of the reasons they struggle with it: Number one, it's a whole lot easier to measure and recognize a group of people going a period of time without an injury and give 'em all something, than it is to individually find and capture employees doing things that advance the safety process. So it's inherently easier to do the old school method than the new school method.

Another common pitfall that managers will encounter is abuse and favoritism. For instance, they will find that some middle manager supervisors are very good and very consistent at thanking their employees, identifying what they did right, and rewarding them. But they'll find that the vast majority of managers don't do that because, guess what, at the end of the day, production and quality are more important than safety, in many businesses.

So what we have to do is help structure the programs in such a way that those problems don't occur. We may take the administration off the middle manager. They worry about consistency and the appearance of playing favorites.

All of those things are problems you do run into, they're road bumps as you move into an upstream environment. That's why, even though nine out of 10 managers know they need to do it, maybe only half of them really do it, and maybe only a fourth of them really do it well.

What else is big in safety recognition this year?

Sims: Another big area that I think is emerging is, there's a crying lack of creative thinking in the area of middle manager recognition. The supervisor, the foreman who, again, say production and quality are job one and two, and safety maybe is third, some of the time.

One of the things we're helping our clients with now is to track and measure middle managers. They're the guys who are running our safety program, conducting training meetings, doing JSAs and audits. And reward those guys, recognize them, because without their support, the safety program falls to pieces.

The other thing we find today is that there still are a few managers who say, 'I shouldn't have to reward employees for participating in a safety program. They ought to do it on their own. They ought to want to go home with all their fingers and toes attached.' And I say to those managers, 'You're right. And ain't it bad, but welcome to America.' And I say to those managers, 'You ought to be able to hire a CEO and pay him a flat fee, and he ought to do a good day's work and return massive amounts of profit to your company's bottom line. And you shouldn't have to offer him any recognition or extra bonuses for doing that. But, welcome to America. It happens every day.'

And I remind those managers that it's not a level playing field because workman's compensation creates an environment where workers are quite often tempted to milk the system.

The Paul Goodrum study ["Safety Incentives: A Study of Their Effectiveness in Construction," Professional Safety, July 2004, pp. 24-34] took 300 construction companies and studied them over three years. Half of them had safety reward programs. Half of them chose to say, 'We don't believe we should have to do that. We don't believe in recognizing people for what they do for safety.' The half who had safety recognition programs three years later had injury rates 50 percent less than the half who did not have them. Bulletproof study--and the best part is, I didn't have to pay for it.

What we're saying is, if it works in construction, it'll work anywhere. Construction has everything going against it. You have multilingual workforces, incredible turnover, often scattered over multiple job sites, with continual movement and constant shifting of people. If you can demonstrate something working in a construction environment, you know it's going to work in a factory, you know it's going to work in a transportation environment--anywhere, if it's properly done.

This Q&A appears in the June 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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