During times of uncertainty and constant change, providing a safe work environment for employees can feel like a bigger challenge than ever. Already we are seeing changes to the way our essential services staff are being asked to complete their jobs in order to manage and reduce the risks associated with COVID-19. On top of their business as usual tasks, team members in supermarkets and healthcare are learning new safety and hygiene procedures, and on top of this, are having to manage customers or patients who may be anxious or angry. With this added pressure on employees, employers may be wondering what they can do to influence and support their staff to not just follow these new safety rules and procedures, but actively promote and encourage safe behaviour. Thankfully psychology can provide some insight!
Different industries will have different definitions of what “safe” behaviour looks like. However, safety researchers have identified two broad categories of behaviour that influence the likelihood of experiencing an injury or illness at work. The first is known as safety compliance behaviour, which refers to generally mandated behaviours such as following procedures and using appropriate PPE. In the current environment, this would include following rules of social distancing and disinfecting shared equipment. The other is safety participation behaviour, referring to voluntary behaviours that support and encourage safety in the wider organisation such as attending voluntary safety meetings and willingly offering ideas on how to improve safety and hygiene.
So, what causes employees to enact or neglect these behaviours? Research suggests it is a nature and nurture scenario – some employees have a greater predisposition to behave safely than others; however, environmental factors such as an organisation’s safety climate also influence safe behaviour.
Safety climate describes the shared perceptions employees have about their organisation’s safety practices, procedures and policies. In essence, whether employees believe their organisation takes safety seriously. Research shows that when employees perceive their organisation to have a positive safety climate, they engage in more safety compliance and participation behaviours (Christian et al. 2009). In fact, this effect is stronger for safety participation behaviours – when employees feel their organisation values safety, they are more likely to go above and beyond simply following protocol.
Improving your organisation’s safety climate requires time and collaboration across multiple departments; however, it can be done. According to Neal and Griffin (2004), there are a number of factors that will impact an organisation’s safety climate, including:
1. Leadership commitment – Is it clear to your employees that senior leaders in your organisation are committed to work safety? Senior management could demonstrate their commitment to workplace safety by regularly visiting worksites and having meaningful conversations with employees about safety initiatives.
2. HR practices – If safety is a value or key capability in your organisation, it’s important your HRM practices also align with this. This includes the HRM practices that affect each stage of the employee lifecycle, such as:
a. Recruitment and selection – How do you assess safety skill and knowledge? Alongside having a minimum qualification requirement (e.g., white card), consider implementing measures to assess safety skills such as work sample tests or WHS interview questions. Not only will this result in you hiring people with high safety competence, but it sets the scene early on that your organisation takes safety seriously.
b. Onboarding and training – The induction and onboarding phase is another ideal time to reinforce the organisation’s emphasis on safety. This could include a welcome video from the CEO where they talk to the value of safety in the organisation, and eLearning or training modules on the mandatory safety procedures.
c. Performance management and reward – Consider tracking and rewarding the Safety Performance of your employees. Rather than focusing on safety outcomes (e.g., occurrence of injury), research suggests focusing on safety participation behaviours (Didla, Mearns & Flin, 2009).
3. Safety systems – This refers to the perceived effectiveness of actual safety systems, processes and procedures in your organisation. When developing new or improving current systems, consider gathering ideas from employees through surveys, interviews or focus groups. When employees participate in the decision-making process, they are more likely to endorse and commit to new safety policies and procedures (Clarke & Ward, 2006).
Maintaining a positive safety climate will go a long way in encouraging employees to behave safely. However, we also know some employees simply have a greater predisposition to behave safely compared to others. For example, employees with a lower risk-taking propensity and greater internal locus of control (i.e., the belief that their actions influence the outcomes in their life) have been found to demonstrate safer work behaviours. The same can be said for those with higher trait emotional stability, as they can manage stress and anxiety that may otherwise impede their ability to follow safety procedures (Beus et al., 2015; Christian et al., 2009).
Measuring these attitudes and beliefs in a traditional recruitment process is difficult as they can easily be concealed and are often not noticed until after the employee has settled into the organisation. However, psychometric assessments such as Revelian’s Work Safety Assessment (RWSA) can provide an objective and scientifically validated measure of a candidate’s true attitudes and beliefs towards safety. Combining this information with a candidate’s qualifications, experience and safety knowledge allows you to confidently predict which candidates will be more likely to behave safely in your organisation.
Revelian’s Work Safety Assessment is now mobile enabled, meaning candidates can now complete it on their laptop, tablet or mobile device. If you would like to find out more on how you can use the RWSA to predict safe behaviour in your organisation please reach out to us here.
Beus, J. M., Dhanani, L. Y. & McCord, M. A. (2015) A meta-analysis of personality and workplace safety: Adressing unanswered questions. Journal of Applied Psychology. 100(2), 481-498.
Christian, M. S., Bradley, J. C., Wallace, J. C., & Burke, M. J., (2009) Workplace safety: A meta-analysis of the roles of person and situation factors. Journal of Applied Psychology. 94(5), 1103-1127.
Clarke, S., & Ward, K. (2006). The role of leader influence tactics and safety climate in engaging employees’ safety participation. Risk analysis, 26(5), 1175-1185.
Didla, S., Mearns, K., & Flin, R. (2009). Safety citizenship behaviour: A proactive approach to risk management. Journal of Risk Research, 12(3-4), 475-483.
Neal, A., & Griffin, M. A. (2004). Safety climate and safety at work. In J. Barling & M. R. Frone (Eds.), The psychology of workplace safety (p. 15–34). American Psychological Association.