Improve Your Safety Culture Today: Part 1 of a Five-Part Blog Series

Leadership_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 culture improvement efforts. Each of the five sections in Figure 1 will be detailed in this 5-part blog series starting with


Early research in industrial psychology from World War II showed key personality traits were associated with exceptional leadership in wartime situations. Leaders high in these traits were more successful than those lower in these characteristics. These predictive factors included (Cascio, 1998):
- Openness to experience
- Conscientiousness
- Extraversion
- Agreeableness
- Lack of neuroticism
- Self-motivation
- Honesty
- Integrity
- Self-confidence
- Intelligence

These traits apply to a number of settings. If you’re high in these factors the chances are you’re an effective safety leader. The problem is that traits, by definition, are generally fixed and do not change. One might argue that integrity or intelligence (and other traits) may be slightly altered through certain activities but they are less malleable than other “states” like self-esteem and internal locus of control. Also, trait theories fail to take into account that leadership behaviors vary considerably based on multiple, changing work environments. Strong leaders develop effective behavioral habits over time that generalize to numerous situations and different types of employees.

Motivating Employees

Effective safety leaders are able to motivate employees to demonstrate safe work behaviors even when the alternative shortcuts are more comfortable, convenient, and quick (Geller, 1996). Understanding expectancy theories of motivation may help safety professionals be more effective in motivating safe work practices. Expectancy models of motivation help explain our pursuit of certain outcomes and objectives including improved safety performance. One such model is expressed below:

valence of the outcome image

In this model, employees will only work toward a given outcome if the result is valued (i.e., valence) and employees believe (i.e., instrumentality) they can achieve the outcome and this will lead to positive future outcomes (Yukl, 1997). For workplace safety, the desired outcome in this model is 100% safe work practices (to reduce the chance of injury).

The first step in this expectancy model is for employees to make the connection between safe work behaviors and the reduced chance for injury. This should occur through effective safety training and mentoring. Also, managers need to reinforce the importance of safety by praising safe work practices, cautioning employees for risky behaviors, and quickly fixing safety hazards. When this happens, employees are more likely to develop and sustain safe work habits.

Broadly, here are a dozen key behaviors that you, as leaders, should exhibit now to support safety efforts.
1. Regularly acknowledge employees for especially safe behaviors.
2. Provide employees respectful, corrective feedback for at-risk behaviors.
3. Emphasize safety as much as production.
4. Advertise safety improvements and successes.
5. Ensure supervisors are supporting safety.
6. Solicit employee input for safety issues. Close the loop with identified concerns.
7. Focus on proactive safety efforts and don’t overemphasize safety outcome statistics. Supplement safety graphs with testimonials.
8. Advertise safety culture improvements.
9. Involve employees in key safety processes like rules, observations, and close calls.
10. Spend time on the floor interacting with employees.
11. Treat employees with respect and dignity.
12. Communicate safety issues with passion and enthusiasm.

Take a moment and see how well you’re exhibiting these important, safety supporting behaviors. Unlike traits, we manage our behaviors on a day-to-day basis. Tracking how well you perform these behaviors is a smart way to turn your activities into long-term habits for a safer, more successful work environment.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll investigate ways to improve your safety systems to prevent serious injuries and fatalities.