Safety climate shows promise in injury prevention

Published: April 10, 2007

Although workplace injury rates have declined in recent years across Canada, workers are still hurt on the job every day. Finding innovative methods to prevent injuries continues to be a priority. 

One approach that shows great promise is when organizations adopt practices to strengthen their safety climate. 

Safety climate refers to workers’ shared perceptions of their firm’s approach to safety. A company’s safety climate, as determined by staff surveys, can signal to employers that they need to take action to prevent  workplace injuries.

The Institute for Work & Health (IWH) has several ongoing and proposed research projects in this area.

Safety climate has enormous potential to improve a company’s health and safety performance and reduce workplace injury rates, says IWH Scientist Dr. Phil Bigelow. 

The Safety Climate Survey is a standardized, anonymous questionnaire completed by employees, which provides the measure of a company’s safety climate. Studies have shown that safety climate is related to safety performance, so the results of these surveys may provide an efficient, reliable way to predict injury.

If a company routinely monitored its safety climate, it could lead to sustainable improvements in occupational health and safety (OHS) performance, says Bigelow.

The safety climate field was pioneered by Dr. Dov Zohar, an IWH adjunct scientist who worked at the Institute as a visiting scientist from 2003-2005. Zohar, who is a professor at the Israel Institute of Technology, showed in a recent study that the original 32-question safety climate questionnaire could be reduced to eight questions. This makes it more feasible to administer in workplaces.

The Institute has been involved in two main directions in safety climate research, says Zohar. One direction is in implementing a new approach for safety climate improvement through safety leadership development. This project took place during my stay at IWH, using a large steel production company in Nova Scotia, and it resulted in a significant improvement in their safety records.

The other area is in validating both the long and brief versions of the survey as a way of predicting a company’s OHS outcome, he says. 

Bigelow is currently involved in two areas of research involving safety climate. In one, a team of researchers is proposing to introduce safety climate questions into the Statistics Canada Workplace and Employee Survey. The questions will be tested in Ontario and British Columbia (B.C.) to determine if safety climate can be accurately measured by the eight questions. These questions could then be incorporated in the Workplace and Employee Survey to provide benchmarking information for the overall status of safety climate in companies across the country. One aspect of this project is to introduce safety climate monitoring and eadership development to unions, management and workers in B.C. and Ontario.

An important question is what effect OHS prevention programs have on safety climate. Bigelow and his colleagues are examining whether safety climate will change in companies that have received interventions. In one study with Ontario’s Electrical & Utilities Safety Association (E&USA), safety climate is being measured before and after a participatory ergonomic intervention. We believe that firms that are implementing interventions will improve their safety climate, says Bigelow

A second study in this area, with the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA), is in its initial stage. Researchers will examine changes in safety climate that result from participating in an incentive program that aims to improve a firm’s OHS management system.

IWH Adjunct Scientist Dr. Harry Shannon is also involved in a safety climate project with E&USA researchers. Working with five firms in the utilities sector, the researchers identified and added several questions to the Safety Climate Survey specific to utilities workplaces. The aim is to see whether the precision of the survey can be improved in specific sectors. These additional questions have since been tested on employees at these firms. Findings were presented at the IAPA annual meeting in April 2007.