The Narrow-Minded CEO and the Smoking Gun of Injury Hiding

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

I was thrilled! I had just heard OSHA's Dr. David Michaels speak about the concerns surrounding 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.

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 30-year perspective on where we are heading with the use of incentives to change behavior in this country, 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 consultant's "trash can diagnosis" for why injury hiding occurs. Incentives also have provided many behavioral consultants with something to bash in their presentations at various conferences.

To prove my point, this past summer during my presentation at the ASSE PDC in Chicago, a safety manager came up to thank me for my "Green Beans & Ice Cream: The Recipe for Behavior Change" session. She then took out her copy of the guide to sessions and pointed out there were five 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, an ASSE keynote speaker, Daniel 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, 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. I will address this idea in a future column, and we will explore the research from behavioral science to see whether the research supports this view.

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

The Narrow-Minded CEO and the Smoking Gun
Here's the way the story came to me, from the plant safety manager.

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

Their CEO apparently didn't feel 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 one-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 five 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."

He then climbed back aboard his corporate jet and rode off into the CEO sunset.

The impact on the plant's 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.

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 manage in one 60-second speech to change the behavior of so many people?

Yes, he did. He changed the behavior of what his people reported. But he failed to change the unsafe behavior of his people. People now hid injuries out of fear of punishment, even though there were no incentives for working safely at this company!

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 Neanderthal 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 of water 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 also can 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 three recordable injuries per year, along with millions of hours without a single lost-time injury. During the focus group interviews, the employees told me they hid injuries on a routine basis.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because about two 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.

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 and more injuries that are hidden, covered up, and lingering risk that cannot be detected and corrected -- 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.

Going Beyond Zero
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 United States, 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 Super Bowl. Getting your culture to move "beyond zero" is winning the Super Bowl, 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 this column up. For the last 30 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 30 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 you are one of them. I've also met my share of "punishers" who wear the Safety Cop badge and believe they are effective change agents. They achieve short-term behavior change in their people (i.e., when they are there, behavior changes), but 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 get the message. It's your only path to move beyond zero.

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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