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Blog 100: Greatest Hits

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

Musicians like The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and even the Beatles put out greatest hits albums. This 100th blog represents a compilation of key themes from the first 99 blogs I’ve written with Propulo. Hopefully a few of these summaries will spark ideas to help you improve your safety culture and prevent serious incidents and fatalities.

Here are a few snippets from the vault: 

RIP Paul O’Neill: Executive Safety Commitment

Recently, the world lost a great safety champion in former Treasury Secretary and Alcoa Chairman Paul O’Neill. O’Neill was a fierce advocate of employee safety and took big risks (and won!) going “all in” on injury prevention. He took the bold step of saying there were no budget constraints for safety at Alcoa, even if that meant lost revenue and an unhappy Board of Directors. O’Neill famously stated, “I was prepared to accept the consequences of spending whatever it took to become the safest company in the world.” He told staff that there was no budget cap for safety and that leaders would be fired if they talked about the cost of injuries to employees. He simply didn’t want to send the wrong message that money trumped caring about people. Putting people over profits paid off. Injuries dropped 85% during his tenure at Alcoa and market value rose from $3 billion to more than $27 billion. O’Neill was convinced safety and profit were closely related. He viewed safety as an investment instead of a cost…as was proven right.

Safety Triad

Propulo’s assessment is grounded on the Triple Crown Model which focuses on the deep-rooted interconnectedness of mindsets, behaviors and systems to improve safety.  Improving safety culture efforts requires an in-depth focus on all three dimensions of the model. This includes mindsets (e.g., operational leaders taking more ownership for safety), behaviors (e.g., employees speaking up with each other for safety) and systems (e.g., focusing on quality over quantity with near misses, balancing safety and production). 

Safety ownership model.

The National Safety Council estimates that 90% of all injuries are due, in part, to risky behaviors. From a probabilities perspective, minimizing the number of at-risk behaviors decreases the likelihood of incidents and injuries. However, at least 80% of risky actions are directly influenced by system deficiencies like time pressure, insufficient personnel, problems with tools/equipment etc. Improving systems will work to shift mindsets and this, in turn, helps reduce risky behaviors that lead to incidents. 

Improvements in these three dimensions bolsters safety culture. By continually working to improve these dimensions, a genuine learning culture for ongoing improvement and the prevention of serious incidents and injuries will be created.  

Learning Culture

Creating and sustaining a learning culture is critical for optimal safety culture and performance. Unfortunately, this can be challenging with organizations that have a history of “old school” cultures. In other cases, new leaders may legitimately need to establish a baseline of accountability to clean up messes created by overly lenient past practices. Overly lenient cultures often result in “looking the other way” and increased risk-taking behavior. However, emphasizing only compliance and regulation leads to safety performance plateaus

Promoting an open “learning culture” and infusing more positive recognition is needed to advance safety culture beyond current levels and reduce the potential for serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs). Creating a more open and positive safety culture promotes discretionary effort beyond basic compliance. Steps to improve learning culture include: 

  • Reinforcing leadership coaching over catching people working at-risk.
  • Ensuring incident analyses are system focused with an emphasis on future prevention more than blame. 
  • Encouraging more employee participation in safety. 
  • Recognizing and appreciating employees for reporting close calls, minor injuries, and safety suggestions along with operating safely.
  • Better explaining the “why” behind organizational changes and getting more upfront field input with change efforts.  
  • Focusing on the quality of conversations with observations more than quantity or quotas. 

BBS 2.0

Leaders need to use scientific methods to identify and prevent SIFs. The efficacy of behavior-based safety (BBS) to improve safety culture and prevent injuries has been demonstrated for decades.Unfortunately, BBS has been marketed and packaged in ways that water down its effectiveness. Rebooting and expanding behavioral safety (i.e., BBS 2.0) will maximize SIF prevention efforts. 

BBS checklists are an effective means to identify safe actions to reinforce along with risky behaviors to address. Immediate feedback is provided to the employee and group data is analyzed to determine behavioral trends in various locations. In addition to being highly diagnostic and informative (when done correctly), the ongoing process of identifying and addressing key issues provides something most safety programs can’t deliver: sustainability. Rather than training being a “one and done” exercise, BBS provides a foundation and system for ongoing improvement efforts. It’s not unusual to speak with leaders who’ve been doing BBS for decades. The same cannot be said for many other training programs that have a finite beginning and end. 

However, BBS needs to be implemented and maintained with care to avoid common pitfalls. This includes: 

  • Tracking the number of observations done instead of the quality. This encourages “pencil whipping” the cards especially when people are held accountable to these numbers. 
  • Establishing quotas for completion which leads to pencil whipping and the common experience of receiving a large number of checklists at the end of the month. 
  • Focusing solely on behaviors without acknowledging and addressing system factors that influence behaviors. People may feel like they’re being audited when the emphasis is only on whether or not certain behaviors (e.g., wearing hard hats when required) were conducted safely in the moment. 
  • Little or no communication following observations makes people wonder what’s happening with the BBS information. People will question “what’s in it for me?” if improvements from observations aren’t shared. Leaders need to constantly advertise system improvements made from employee feedback during the process.

With BBS 2.0, checklists are expanded to include more open-ended questions to facilitate discussion and better identify system deficiencies. In addition to behavioral categories, open ended questions are added to the bottom of the checklist with a space for comments (instead of safe or at-risk). Employees should be consulted when adding these questions. Examples include: 

  • What scares you about the job in terms of your own personal safety?
  • What else do you need to stay safe?
  • Do any procedures need updating?
  • Where might the next injury occur?
  • What would you change about the job to make it safer?

Adding these open-ended questions facilitates richer conversation. Employees are more likely to feel consulted instead of audited with this approach. Also, system factors contributing to risk are better identified with this approach. There’s increased emphasis on discussions over quotas with card completion. Remember: it’s about people, not paper.

The HAT Principle

We are continually asked by leaders some variant of the question: “We provide all the PPE and safety policies for our employees and they still get hurt. What else can we do?” One way to address this issue to use the HAT principle which involves Hearing your people, Addressing their concerns, and Telling everyone improvements you’ve made based on their feedback. Sounds simple, right? 

Unfortunately, many leaders have not fostered a learning environment within their organizations. As a result, important organizational decisions are often made in a vacuum by people that don’t have a sufficient understanding of how the work actually gets done. A system to employ the HAT principle hasn’t been established. Let’s take a closer look at each HAT element:

  • Hear your employees. This is different from simply “listening.” Leaders need to hear and feel issues, concerns, and suggestions that employees have regarding the world of work. The best solutions are often developed by the people on the job, doing the job.
  • Address employees’ concerns in an Active manner. We’ve heard numerous employees over the years tell us their suggestions and concerns “go into a black hole” and never get resolved. Taking active steps to address employee concerns, however big or small, improves safety and overall morale.
  • Tell everyone about the improvements you’ve made! Safety is, in part, a marketing game. Leaders need to advertise improvements! Sharing improvements made based on employee feedback reinforces a responsive, learning environment and demonstrates legitimate commitment to employees’ safety and well-being. It will also encourage considerably more effort and engagement from employees who want to get involved to make further improvements. 

Leadership Listening Tours

Leaders should spend more time in the field asking actively care questions with authentic curiosity, care and concern in order to build relationships with workers and get insights into safety culture strengths and gaps. Examples of open-ended questions include:  

  • How are you doing? Is everything okay with you and your family? 
  • What is working well in your job? (Don’t forget to recognize positive safety behavior.) 
  • Are there any challenges or hazards we need to discuss? 
  • Is there anything I can do to make your job safer? 
  • How would you improve this job for the future? 

These tours allow leaders to identify key employee issues and concerns. It also helps them understand best practices that should be introduced to other plants, locations, and areas of operations. Also, listening tours show that management genuinely cares about people’s safety and they’re willing to learn and adapt. Leaders should thank employees for their openness and take notes on actions that need to be taken. Leaders hold themselves accountable by sharing what they learned and actions that need to be taken from these tours in senior meetings. 

Example: A mining company was suffering from a disengaged workforce. Although they had a robust safety team and many safety campaigns were rolled out on a quarterly basis, workers just would not engage or own safety. To find out what was driving this behavior, we suggested that members of the newly created safety leadership team do a series of listening tours. After several of these sessions, workers started to realize that leaders genuinely cared about them. When this happened, they started opening up about safety and revealed that they didn’t speak up or report close incidents out of fear of getting in trouble. Leaders were able to take this information and change their approach to safety. They refrained from blaming and started acknowledging and recognizing people for their courage to speak up. The shift from blame to appreciation had a huge effect on not just safety engagement and ownership, but on overall morale and productivity. 

Bottom line: Leaders should make the most of work-side listening tours, which are a great opportunity for first-hand observations, productive conversations, and safety inspiration. 


The Eagles went 14 years before releasing their Hell Freezes Over album. With any luck, the next “Greatest Hits Vol. 2” for blog 200 will be released in less time. In the meantime, applying lessons learned from Paul O’Neill, the safety triad, BBS 2.0, the HAT principle, learning culture, and listening tours will help you fight the good fight to prevent serious incidents and fatalities. Thanks for reading!

At Propulo, we work with leaders find new ways to improve safety culture and prevent SIFs.         


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