An Open Letter to OSHA

An Open Letter to OSHA

“While doing some spring cleaning, I came across this letter to OSHA from a few years back. As we all know, OSHA made lagging incentives illegal this past December, 2017. Well done OSHA!”


An open letter to OSHA regarding the proposed legislation on lagging indicator incentives and injury hiding

Date: October 1, 2015

Regarding draft OSHA Rule: OSHA-2015-0018

Dear OSHA Leadership…

By way of introduction, I have designed more than 1,000 Behavior Modification & Positive Reinforcement  systems since 1981 and hold several patents and trademarks in the field.

I applaud OSHA’s move to stop Lagging Indicator Safety Incentive systems that cause injury hiding and replace them with systems that change behavior at the worker and leadership/management level.

I appreciate this opportunity to comment on OSHA-2015-0018 to address both Lagging and Leading Indicator systems, as well as Behavior Based Safety systems and their strengths and weaknesses.

On average about 50% of companies use some type of safety incentive system, while only about 5 to 10% of companies I survey use Behavioral based safety. With traditional BBS, there is usually an 80% to 90% failure rate, and it frequently has to be brought back from “life support”. Safety Incentive systems seem to have more staying power but there are plenty of failures there as well.

In my experience, over 90% of companies who employ Safety Incentives are continuing to use lagging indicator Safety Incentive systems, despite Osha warnings to the contrary.

In fact  I have had managers tell me to contact them when OSHA gets “serious” about enforcing the rules.

As Dr. B.F. Skinner said:   “You get what you reinforce.”   

To say that rewarding people with money, gifts, pizza parties or anything else based on working a period of time without an injury will not cause injury hiding is incorrect, and not in harmony with common sense, and the practical experience of millions of leaders in the real world.

(To say that Safety Incentives, properly linked to behavior, are not effective is also wrong,)

I can name many companies who have significant injury hiding and also very low injury rates.  For example, one Safety Manager at a Fortune 500 company told me his 18 year old son came to work in the plant where he manages safety, and he was injured a short time later. He lied to his dad and said he hurt himself playing football. He didn’t want to cost his department their  Safety Incentive bonus, which was tied to being injury free for the month.

On balance, the vast majority of business leaders, union leaders and employees are all firmly on the same page as OSHA….the goal is “nobody gets hurt”.  It seems that the debate is on how we get there. 🙂

Ahead of my comments, I have attached some whitepapers …also please review my video at:

With your permission, I would like to comment on four primary areas:

A. Injury hiding and under-reporting of injuries.
B. Leading versus Lagging Safety Incentive Systems
C. Behavior Based Safety and Blame the Worker Approaches
D. Should OSHA continue using lagging indicators or move to leading


A: Injury hiding and under-reporting of injuries.

Injury hiding can result from several root causes. One or more of these may be involved…..

  1. Lagging indicator Safety Incentive systems where people or groups are rewarded with prizes/money/dinners etc. for meeting a target or goal such as days injury free, reduction in TRIR, LTIR etc.
  2. Key Performance Indicators (KPI or “gainsharing”) for employees, supervisors and managers which are tied to lagging indicator safety results  (Google for Mad TV “Safety Day” video at youtube) and or Extreme senior leadership pressure to hit unreasonable “zero injury” targets
  3. Fear of being fired, or disciplined for reporting an injury…e.g. Cardinal Rules programs (when poorly implemented)
  4. Fear of failing a drug test (if the worker is a drug user)
  5. Bravado or Machismo (Worker wants to be identified as tough so he comes to work with the bandage on the broken arm to gain social status & peer acceptance)

As the above points illustrate, people will hide injuries for a number of reasons.  

I have listed them loosely in order of the most common.

I believe OSHA should address lagging indicator Safety Incentives of any kind and work to eliminate them to reduce injury hiding.  Companies should be helped to see that the real goal lies beyond Zero Injuries.

An equally important area to focus on is the “one size fits all” approach to safety punishment.  Injured workers are most often handed over to HR who lumps them in for punishment that is a cookie cutter duplicate of the punishment given employees for drug use, sexual harassment, workplace violence and the like.

An injured worker is not a bad person. Yet so often our systems treat them as such, while throwing away the most valuable intel we have to fix the problem.  It is easier to terminate than to fix the underlying management at risk behaviors that setup the latent conditions wherein the worker failed (as you or I would have done when placed in the same situation most likely).


B:  Leading versus Lagging Safety Incentive Systems

  1. Lagging indicator Safety Incentive systems.    These are systems where people are rewarded for a result including but not limited to days without recordable or lost time injuries, meeting target rates for TRIR and LTIR goals, They are focused on RESULTS and OUTCOMES. These are a “quick fix” but often injuries return after the bonus goal is missed, and then many “domino effect” injuries are reported after the fact. It is these that OSHA should discourage.
  2. Leading indicator behavior based recognition systems.  These systems are the polar opposite of lagging systems. Here we reinforce safe behaviors, and not OUTCOMES. Some companies attempt to do this by rewarding attendance at safety training meetings or safety suggestions. While these are good behaviors, they are not the most important behaviors to reinforce. When the right behaviors are positively reinforced, we have documented 50 to 70% injury reductions without injury hiding. It is important to address leadership behavior change as that is what drives culture and worker behavior. These are the kind of systems that OSHA should encourage, while paying attending to leading indicator behavior change of the management system as well.


C: Behavior Based Safety.

  1. History of Behavioral Based Safety & Blame the Worker.  Early BBS systems were developed successfully in the US Army and quickly spread to industry.. Numerous  BBS firms exist and a google search for “Behavior Based Safety” will return many hits. Sadly, some early BBS systems focused on what the worker did wrong, and placed  the blame on worker behavior. In isolated places, this continues to this day, due to shortsighted thinking of some leaders. However, many leaders understand that worker behavior is dependent on leader/management behavior. It takes both.
  2. Definition of Behavior-The scientific definition is simply what we say and do. That’s it. Behavior can be safe or at risk.  This applies to worker behavior and leader behavior.
  3. Worker At-Risk Behavior versus Management At Risk Behavior. We used to place 90% of the blame on worker behavior for injuries, but increasingly we are able to see that Management at-risk behaviors drive many of the problems. Please review my video at to get my model for this.  Once we have clarity that Management at risk behaviors are equally as important as worker at risk behaviors then we can stop the US/THEM model and move toward an interdependent culture.
  4. Scope of companies using BBS–only about 5% to 10% of companies know what BBS is.
  5. Success/Failure rates of BBS systems–Less than 20% of companies using BBS have successful BBS programs. Many are fraught with pencil whipping and questionable data. If care isn’t taken, the process can deteriorate into negative reinforcement and lack of buy in.
  6. Successful BBS Systems & Employee/Labor Buy In–Successful behavioral systems include both labor and management from day one in the design and implementation. Care must be taken to separate the safety disciplinary policy from the behavioral system. Linking the two is a recipe for disaster. Positive reinforcement is vital. Eliminating management at-risk behaviors is as well.
  7. Going Beyond Zero Injuries-  As my video at explains, the real goal is NOT Zero Injuries and never has been. The real goal lies beyond Zero Injuries.

Zero Injuries is the START of the Journey and not the end.


D: Should OSHA continue using lagging indicators or move to leading?

  1. The impact of focusing on injury rates and using punitive measures. With all due respect, OSHA itself does use injury rates to determine which companies to visit and penalize. So OSHA has created the lagging indicators that companies are using to reward the wrong way.  A question (perhaps for a future discussion) is whether the lagging metrics OSHA uses to target companies should change….after all—“You get what you reinforce”
  2. That being said, it may be that the only practical, cost effective approach is the current one in use by OSHA which looks at injury rates and then allocates resources to cite, fine and penalize wrongdoing.
  3. Currently OSHA is missing an opportunity (in my view) to employ positive reinforcement which has been demonstrated as superior to punishment and negative reinforcement in its relations with employers and workers.  I would suggest this as a future discussion.

Thank you for your time in this matter and for your contributions to safety.

Kind Regards,

Bill Sims Jr.


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