Improve Your Safety Culture Today: Part 3 of a Five-Part Blog Series

People_Optimal Safety Culture


By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

Forward thinking leaders are continually searching for ways to advance safety culture and prevent serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs). Several years ago, I published a book with Government Institutes entitled, “Keeping People Safe: The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention.” The book was designed to be a user-friendly guide for leaders to improve safety culture and performance. Here are key takeaways from the book that may help your safety improvement efforts. Each of the five sections in Figure 1 will be detailed in this 5-part blog series. In parts
one and two, key recommendations to improve safety leadership and systems were provided. In part 3, strategies to improve people factors for safety are addressed.

People Factors

Over the years, we’ve asked numerous groups of employees to tell us which of the following attributes of co-workers is most important in driving safety culture improvement: experience, intelligence, or attitude. We expected most employees, especially those with more tenure, to tell us “experience.” However, people have overwhelmingly said attitude, regardless of their age, position, location, or industry. People with good attitudes are more open to learning, taking care of their individual responsibilities, and are just easier to get along with.

Attitudes Impact Behavior

People experience cognitive dissonance when their attitudes and behaviors are incongruent. This unpleasant state motivates them to either change their behavior or their attitude so they’re consistent (Festinger, 1957). For instance, a manager who considers herself a nice person will feel guilty if she finds herself yelling regularly at employees. This realization will motivate her to either stop yelling or change the way she views himself.

With this principle in mind, employees with a positive safety attitude are more likely to exhibit discretionary effort for safety like following safety procedures, reporting safety hazards, participating in safety initiatives, and providing peer-to-peer safety feedback. However, when employees have a bad attitude about safety, they are apt to hide injuries (if possible), take safety shortcuts, resist company safety improvement efforts, and avoid providing safety feedback to others (Geller & Williams, 2001).

Understanding Attitudes

One of the strongest predictors of human behavior is locus of control, defined as “the extent to which individuals believe that they, or that external factors, control their lives” (Rotter, 1990, p. 34). Research demonstrates that people with an internal locus of control are healthier and have higher academic achievement than those with an external locus of control (Lefton, 1991). Employees who feel in control of safety issues and initiatives are more likely to buy in and participate in the company’s safety efforts (Geller, 2002). For example, employees at a Virginia company who were directly involved in developing their own BBS cards were six times more likely to use them than fellow employees in different areas who were simply given a card and told to use it. Increasing personal control greatly increased employee participation in this initiative.

Self-efficacy is one of the most widely studied people-based factors (Geller, 1996). It reflects one’s self-confidence in completing a certain task, especially in the face of significant obstacles (Bandura, 1977). Employees with high self-efficacy have better safety attitudes and behaviors. Employees’ self-efficacy for safety is largely determined by management’s motivational style. Top-down, fear-based leadership damages self-efficacy. Positive, supportive leadership promotes high self-efficacy because it supports one’s sense of ability and accomplishment. Smart leaders find ways to build employees’ sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy.

Optimism reflects the degree to which an individual’s expectations for the future are positive and that life is generally good. Optimism not only reflects an individual’s mood state, it predicts performance. In a study of college freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania, students’ optimism (measured before the start of school) was a better predictor of academic success than SAT scores or high school grades (Seligman, 1991). Leaders who provide individual recognition and appreciation for safety behaviors and efforts will find their employees are more likely to demonstrate discretionary effort for safety in the future.

Empathy reflects our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Empathizing with others is critical for healthy relationships at home and on the job. Empathy often occurs non-verbally, as we tune in to the tones of voice, gestures, mannerisms, and facial expressions of others. People who have strong empathy toward others are more sensitive, outgoing, and popular than people who are less empathic (Goleman, 1995). Reminders to be more empathic are helpful at all organizational levels. This is accomplished through one-on-one discussions, safety meetings and training, and especially through employee testimonials where workers share personal experiences (e.g., injuries) that impact their lives. Increasing empathy also helps minimize the “us versus them” mentality (e.g., management versus hourly) that can divide a workforce and damage employees’ attitudes.

Changing Attitudes

Changing attitudes is possible except for the most ardent of nay-sayers. In addition to the reminders above, here are additional recommendations to influence others’ attitudes.
• Own up to past organizational mistakes and look to the future to make improvements.
• Treat mistakes as learning opportunities, not occasions to punish.
• Solicit input from employees about safety concerns and respond to these concerns in a timely manner.
• Create opportunities for employees to get involved in safety initiatives.
• Encourage discussions between and within organizational levels.
• Increase the frequency and quality of one-on-one conversations.
• Treat employees fairly and respectfully.

Follow these steps to improve people-based factors within your organization. This is good for safety but also morale and culture. We all appreciate working in safer, more positive work environments.

In Part 4 of this series, we’ll investigate ways to improve safety behaviors to prevent serious injuries and fatalities.