This CQ Dossier focuses on what constitutes an effective safety climate. Recent disasters such as the Grenfell Tower Fire incident illustrate the importance of safety in the work environment. At the Grenfell Tower, people escaped using a single staircase and while more than 65 people were rescued, an estimated 71 people died and countless others were injured (Castle et al. 2017). A recent report on the Grenfell Tower incident found that there were organizational problems within the building industry that led to the fire (Hackitt, 2018). One of the main problems was the lack of an effective safety climate. This dossier describes the key elements of an effective safety climate and focuses on organizational and individual factors that are antecedents of effective safety.
Defining Safety Climate
First, it is important to differentiate between safety climate and safety culture. Safety culture is the product of individual group values and patterns of behavior that reflect an organization’s health and safety management. These values are deep and rooted in tradition and the history of the organization. Safety climate is more transient and is reflective of individual states or moods. It is the shared perceptions among organizational members of safety policies, procedures and practices (Wallace, Popp & Mondore, 2006). Employees do not directly respond to the work environment but first reflect and interpret on environmental stimuli; then they act according to their diagnosis of the environment (Wallace et al., 2006).
The first formal definition of safety climate was developed by Dov Zohar (1980). Zohar defined safety climate as “a summary of molar perceptions that employees share about their work environment” (Zohar 1980). The model was tested among Israeli workers across a variety of industries. This seminal study established a method to assess safety climate through assessing shared perceptions of an organization’s safety climate.
The Key elements of Safety Climate
Zohar’s (1980) original factors included the following:
Importance of safety training,
Effects of required work pace on safety,
Status of safety committee,
Status of safety officer,
Effects of safe conduct on promotion,
Level of risk at work place,
Management attitudes toward safety and
effect of safe conduct on social status.
A recent review of the literature concluded that the set of critical factors has not really diverged from this original 1980s set of dimensions. Seo and colleagues (2004) found that the themes clustered into five core constructs of safety climate:
Management commitment to safety,
Supervisory safety support,
Coworker (safety) support,
Employee (safety) participation and,
More recently, Zohar (2000) has also acknowledged the multi-level nature of safety climate and argued that group members must have shared cognitions regarding safety priorities and expectations (Zohar, 2010). This logic resulted in a new multi-level model and safety climate questionnaire (Zohar & Luria, 2005). Two levels emerged from the study – organizational and group safety climate constructs. The study revealed that safety climate is complex and multi-level; company policies predicted organizational climate perceptions and these predicated how supervisors behave in accordance with these policies. Supervisory practices of safety were related to group-level climate perceptions, showing that employees determine the importance of safety based on the actions of their supervisor. If supervisors make safety requirements contingent on production deadlines, workers will infer low safety priority even if it is stated by top management that safety has top priority (Zohar & Luria, 2005).
Safety climate is multi-level concept
Griffin and Neal (2000) also acknowledge the multi-level nature of safety climate. Based on their research, they conceptualize safety climate as a high order factor comprised of specific first order factors including safety policies, procedures and rewards. The higher order factor is the extent to which employees believe that safety is valued within the organization. This higher-order factor is important because research shows that employees look to management to determine what constitutes safe behavior. If management espouse safety as important but then focus on profitability, employees will perceive the organization to place little value on safety.
What predicts an effective safety climate?
Because organizational safety climate predicts group-level safety climate, there is evidence to suggest that leaders can drive an effective safety climate. Management commitment to safety is important because team members look to their leaders to determine whether safety is important (Zohar & Luria, 2005). A recent study found that top management is instrumental in driving safety behaviors. Tucker and colleagues (2016) found that chief executive officers indirectly impact workplace injuries. One of the reasons for conducting the study was following an investigation into the BP Deep Water Horizon Explosion, which took the lives of 11 workers (Tucker et al., 2016). There was much criticism of the BP CEO and the top management team (TMT) and the researchers wished to analyze the extent to which leaders impact accidents. They found that when the CEO drove a TMT safety climate, this was positively related to organizational supervisors’ reports of the broader organizational safety climate. In turn, this supervisor support for safety was associated with fewer employee injuries. This research show that an effective safety climate involves many parties and is not just the responsibility of the individual.
Older theories of what leads to fewer accidents in the workplace focused on human error viewing human error as a predictor rather than a symptom of deep flaws in the system (Wallace, Popp & Mondore, 2006). New models now show that the picture is more complex and that occupational safety needs to address factors of work design, safety climate, individual differences, affective, motivational and cognitive processes (Wallace et al., 2006).
In conclusion, the research illustrates that there are several dimensions that comprise an effective safety climate. The literature also reveals that safety climate is a shared phenomenon that is filtered from senior executives to the floor level. It is important that leaders focus on cultivating an effective safety climate through prioritizing safety over production.
Griffin, M. A. & Neal, A. 2000. Perceptions of safety at work: a framework for linking safety climate to safety performance, knowledge, and motivation. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 5, 3, 347-358.
Hackitt, J. (2018). Building a safer future. Final Report. Independent Review of Building regulations and Fire Safety.
Seo, D.C., Torabi, M.R., Blair, E.H, & Ellis, N.T. (2004). A cross‐validation of safety climate scale using confirmatory factor analytic approach. Journal of Safety Research 35(4): 427‐445.
Tucker, S., Ogunfowora, B., & Ehr, D. (2016). Safety in the c-suite: How chief executive officers influence organizational safety climate and employee injuries. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(9), 1228-1239.
Wallace, J. C., Popp, E., & Mondore, S. (2006). Safety climate as a mediator between foundation climates and occupational accidents: A group-level investigation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(3), 681-688.
Zohar D. 1980. Safety climate in industrial organizations: theoretical and applied implications. Journal of Applied Psychology, 65: 96‐102.
Zohar, D., & Luria, G. (2005). A multilevel model of safety climate: Cross-level relationships between organization and group-level climates. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 616–628.
Annette was born in England and now lives in the United States. She has a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and has taught at several institutions. Annette has published in several journals, including Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology, Human Resource Development Quarterly, and Organizational Research Methods. She worked in the public and private sector for many years, primarily as a management trainer.