Most employees know that their company's view of safety practices can be a matter of life or death, and now there's data to prove it. According to a recent study from Towers Perrin-ISR, a Chicago-based employee research and consulting firm, a clear correlation exists between negative opinions on safety issues and greater occurrences of workplace safety incidents. The study also found that manufacturing employees with good opinions about their employer's safety processes and approaches contribute directly to a much lower rate of safety incidents.

“Towers Perrin-ISR maintains data from all of the clients it's ever surveyed — literally thousands of companies and millions of employees,” says Justine O'Connor, research associate for the company and the person who spearheaded the development of the personal/occupational safety norms. “Many of our clients provide us with different metrics such as total recordable incidents, days away from work, and workday interruptions. So, we decided to see if we could link aspects of employee culture to those safety metrics, and we consistently found a very strong relationship there.”

Supervision, teamwork, workload, and empowerment — including individual impact, involvement, and communication — were the four main cultural differentials measured in the study. Companies that were strong in these areas had better safety track records.

“The benefit of the analysis was that we were able to see whether or not these factors differentiating strong or weak safety cultures could actually be found on a general level across many different kinds of companies,” says O'Connor. “We did discover evidence for that, and we thought it was very important to present in our research because the finding does generalize to a larger population of companies.”

O'Connor also says that two new cultural elements — senior management and employee respect/well-being — were shown to correlate to safety data. However, these elements may be indirect influences on safety outcomes, and more research is needed to explore these relationships.

For companies seeking to improve their safety performance, the study recommends taking the following steps:

Give employees the knowledge and tools to make decisions

Inform — employees who have a clear understanding of their job roles, know their place within the team and organization, and are updated regarding matter affecting them are more likely to make well-informed decisions in the face of safety threats.

Involve — trusting employees and encouraging them to solve problems will heighten their sense of accountability and enhance their motivation to “own” projects — preventing the likelihood of safety issues arising.

Give employees social support

Work environments promoting strong teamwork can offset the negative impact of work overload. Teamwork provides mutual monitoring to ensure safety protocols are followed, and supports employees when work demands exacerbate the likelihood of mistakes, accidents, etc.

Create a corporate culture of balance

Cultures that emphasize employee well-being and production quality rather than bottom-line numbers are more likely to make safety a top priority. Management must communicate and demonstrate a set of principles that support and enhance the well-being of its workforce.

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