Cultural Impact of Safe Work Environments

Nov. 1, 2007
By Joe Dettmann It should not surprise you that an employees perception of safety has a direct effect on actual safety. Now, empirical evidence exists

By Joe Dettmann

It should not surprise you that an employee’s perception of safety has a direct effect on actual safety. Now, empirical evidence exists to support this logical connection, thanks to new research findings that identify a direct relationship between opinions of workplace culture and safety incidents, workday interruptions and absences. These findings were generated by the organizational research firm Towers Perrin-ISR.

The research stems from numerous case studies that link employee perceptions to safety data and generalizes across industries with four new employee opinion benchmarks built by the research team.

The result of hundreds of thousands of opinions gathered from employees of manufacturing facilities worldwide, the benchmarks illustrate the importance of understanding employee perspectives when developing safety action plans.

The benchmarks—Process Safety Culture, Best-in- Class Process Safety Culture, Personal/Occupational Safety Culture and High-Performing Personal/ Occupational Safety—enable organizations to compare the cultural and environmental issues that impact workplace safety to those factors that drive top-performing organizations in the world.

In addition, by comparing the highest- and lowest performing safety benchmarks, the research findings pinpoint specific aspects of employee opinions that differentiate strong and weak safety cultures. For instance, top-performing companies have much more favorable opinions on workplace culture issues related to supervision, empowerment, teamwork, workload and employee well being.

This benchmarking analysis also highlights some new findings, including a disparity in opinions of work quality between top-performing and bottom-performing safety companies. There was a 16% difference in agreement to workload demands.

One company that contributed to the benchmarks is a glass manufacturer serving the automotive market and employing more than 1,200 employees. It was one of the early case studies that established significant relationships between safety outcomes and employee opinions of supervision, empowerment and teamwork.

A follow-up case study, involving more than 58,000 employees of a top global energy producer, produced similar findings. It also showed that excessive workload can have a negative influence on safety performance if strong teamwork is not in place. (Teamwork tempers the negative effects of heavy workloads.)

A third case study aggregated 27 companies across a wide range of industries, half of which were OSHA Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) sites. Employee opinion scores were compared between VPP and non- VPP sites, revealing cultural elements that differentiate VPP companies: perceptions of safety, supervision, empowerment and working relationships.

Another recent case study further supports and expands upon these research findings. Employee opinion data for a global energy provider was examined across 100 sites (spanning 35,000 employees). Survey data was collected in both 2004 and 2007, so that changes in employee opinions and actual safety outcomes could be compared.

Not surprisingly, sites with strong, favorable opinions on key aspects of culture (supervision, teamwork, empowerment and workload, along with senior management and employee well being) had significantly fewer safety incidents compared to sites with weaker employee favorability.

Furthermore, sites that saw the best improvement between 2004 and 2007 in key areas of employee culture had the greatest payoff in terms of safety performance in 2007.

Empirical evidence also suggests that strong leadership and supervision serve as the basis for a safe work environment. This means senior managers must clearly define and communicate a set of values, policies and procedures, which are then modeled and promoted by local supervisors. These supervisors must empower their employees and foster teamwork to create an environment that facilitates safe decision making.

By empowering your employees, you give them the knowledge and tools they need to make informed judgments, you trust them to solve problems, and you give them ownership over projects.

Meanwhile, fostering teamwork provides employees with the support and guidance they need to make the right decisions, particularly when facing high work demands.

While these insights provide guidance to companies looking for direction in focusing efforts to improve safety performance, it should be understood that unique opportunities exist within each organization. Measuring your culture and how employee perceptions link to safety performance at your organization is a critical step in understanding your own leading indicators of performance.

Joe Dettmann is a project director who leads the global safety culture survey practice for Towers Perrin-ISR ( He has a PhD in industrial/organizational psychology and recently presented his firm’s research at the 2007 National Safety Council Congress & Expo. He can be reached at [email protected].

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