Safety climate has “great potential” in reducing workplace injury rates

Published: August 10, 2007

he 1986 nuclear power plant explosion in Chernobyl, Ukraine, which killed more than 30 workers and led to mass evacuations, holds a spot in history as the worst incident of its kind.

The disaster led not only to improvements in how nuclear plants were run and regulated worldwide, but it also spawned the widespread use of the term “safety culture.” In the Chernobyl context, the safety culture was described as “deficient” in terms of the way the plant was managed and safety protocols were disregarded.

Safety culture captures the notion that the values, attitudes and behaviours among workers at a firm, with regards to how they think and act towards safety, can have a significant impact on the firm’s safety performance.

Safety climate – a related but different term – provides a way to measure what workers think about safety culture in their company at a given point in time. Safety climate refers to workers’ shared perceptions of their firm’s and their leaders’ approach to safety. And it provides a focus point to make changes to improve safety.

There has been growing interest in the use of safety climate in injury prevention.

Safety climate holds great potential in improving a company’s health and safety performance and reducing workplace injury rates, says IWH Scientist Dr. Philip Bigelow. The Institute is involved in several areas of research on safety climate (see Safety climate shows promise in injury prevention in the Spring 2007 issue of At Work).

People use the terms safety culture and climate interchangeably, but there is a difference. The culture of an organization, as with the culture of a country, is hard to measure and difficult to change.

In comparison, a company’s safety climate can be determined by a survey that asks employees how their immediate supervisors and senior managers deal with safety issues. Climate can be used, somewhat like a barometer, as a forecasting tool.

Studies have shown that safety climate is related to safety performance, so the results of these surveys could provide a way to predict workplace injury. Growing research evidence also suggests that the use of safety climate could have a significant impact in injury prevention, if organizations were to measure their climate and take action to improve it.

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

The need for innovative ways to prevent workplace injuries is crucial. In Canada, almost 500 workers died on the job in 2005 as a result of a traumatic injury. Despite reductions in workplace injury rates across the country, 338,000 workers – roughly the population of London, Ontario – were injured seriously enough to receive compensation that year. 

The first Safety Climate Survey was developed in 1980 by Dr. Dov Zohar, an Adjunct Scientist at the Institute for Work & Health and professor at the Israel Institute of Technology (see below).

Improving climate through leadership

How can a company improve its safety climate?

Despite the abundance of research in this area, There has been very little research on climate improvement, says Zohar. He notes that most research has focused on different ways to measure safety climate. There are perhaps 30 safety climate surveys, but he cautions that most have not been validated – or in other words, they haven’t been shown to measure what they intend to measure.

The one exception is that people started to notice the relationship between leadership and climate, he says. This is an area he has been researching himself for the past seven years. Effective leaders can improve climate.

An effective leader has the ability to change safety behaviours. Leaders’ concern for the welfare of their workers, their relationships with workers, and the value they place on safety are all aspects that contribute to effective leadership.

Improving safety leadership should, therefore, lead to improved climate. This idea showed that it had merit in a recent study.

The study involved a safety leadership intervention in a large manufacturing company in Nova Scotia. Zohar began this research while he was a Visiting Scientist at the Institute from 2003 to 2005. David Stuewe, a professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and former CEO of Nova Scotia’s Workers’ Compensation Board, is another member with this study team.

The intervention included a workshop with general managers, department heads, direct supervisors and union representatives at the company to introduce them to the concept of safety leadership. The workshop was followed by weekly, confidential coaching sessions over several months.

These sessions were based on a unique approach in which informal daily conversations of managers were randomly chosen. The conversations were then analyzed to identify main messages, to see if there was discussion about safety, for instance. Given the longstanding premise that “Leaders create climate/culture at the workplace,” the main theme of coaching was: Which kind of climate are you currently promoting through your daily messages?

The second phase involved coaching sessions with pairs of leaders who had direct reporting relationships with each other. Each pair had six to nine sessions. At these sessions, they defined expectations of each other, agreed on safety objectives and evaluated their progress based on their daily conversations. The underlying focus was on sending clear and effective safety messages during daily communication.

All employees at the company were surveyed before the intervention, at the end of the intervention phase, and six months later to see if safety climate changed. Each survey yielded more than 450 responses, with more than seven in 10 employees participating.

At each stage, there were improvements, with an overall 11 per cent improvement in safety climate. As verification, improvements were also recorded through random observations of safety procedures and of leadership safety interactions. 

The IWH’s Bigelow, along with Zohar, Stuewe and other researchers, will be developing a pilot project to introduce safety leadership development in unions and to managers in British Columbia. The project will be delivered through a series of workshops with the aim of targeting 3,000 people.

Other ways to improve climate

Other types of OHS programs might provide another avenue to change climate.

Bigelow and another research team are exploring this idea as part of a study in Ontario’s electrical and utilities sector. Although the study was not specifically designed to improve safety climate, the researchers are examining whether it improves after a participatory ergonomic (PE) intervention is introduced in six companies. More than 1,000 employees are involved in the surveys.

The participatory approach to addressing ergonomic issues can improve both the physical as well as the psychological and social (psychosocial) factors associated with musculoskeletal disorders, explains Bigelow. We believe that firms that are implementing PE interventions will improve their safety climate.

Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) has seen improvements in safety climate in companies participating in its Safety Groups program. In this program, firms voluntarily join a group along with other companies to improve their OHS programs, with scheduled meetings and expectations. The firms commit to initiating or improving performance in five safety areas per year, and may withdraw at any time without penalty.

After participating in a safety group, firms in four sectors – construction, forestry, manufacturing and transportation – showed improvements in safety climate scores measured by the WSIB.

Leading indicators in prevention

Traditionally, a company’s record of its injury rates has been used to provide an indication of its safety performance. This is known as a “trailing indicator.”

Safety climate falls under the category of “leading indicators,” as it provides a sense of a company’s safety performance and potential for injuries before they occur.

In this regard, safety climate might also be particularly useful in small- and medium-sized workplaces. In the course of a year, injuries occur less frequently in smaller workplaces than in larger workplaces. Monitoring the rate of injury events – for example, the rate of injuries occurring per 100 workers in the course of a year – may not provide timely information on the safety performance of smaller workplaces.

Other leading indicators include OHS audits, checklists and risk management tools. These focus on technical solutions and compliance.  These other leading indicators are necessary building blocks, says Bigelow. But safety climate is the bridge that focuses on the day-to-day interactions, and how they affect safety.