The Past, Present, and Future of Workplace Safety Research – A Review of Beus, McCord, & Zohar (2016)

Beus and colleagues (2016) introduce the integrative safety model to provide a much needed comprehensive and coherent narrative behind research on workplace safety.  This includes thinking which has been supported by research and that which is currently attracting the attention of researchers. The integrative safety model (see figure below) is not an attempt at providing an overarching theory but is simply a way of organizing the most current approaches to workplace safety. The conceptual frame combines the three most dominant theories in workplace safety literature: job performance theory (Campbell, McCloy, Oppler, & Sager, 1993), job demands-resources theory (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007), and organizational climate theory (Zohar, 1980).

Screen Shot 2018-02-24 at 12.39.26 AM.png

An important advance in safety research was to start thinking about safety as a performance behaviour. To perform well, a person requires knowledge, motivation, and skill, and these three are largely determined by individual differences (such as personality) and contextual factors (such as leadership and training). The theory also suggests that history and experience will also shape knowledge, motivation, and skills. Together, job performance theory suggests that individual and contextual factors influence the safety triad of knowledge, motivation, and skill, which in turn influence safety behaviour and outcomes. Outcomes are then said to loop back and have a role in further shaping this safety triad of knowledge, motivation, and skill.

The literature largely, albeit in a rather scattered fashion, supports the proposed links between individual and contextual factors on knowledge, motivation, and skill. These in turn are related to safety-related behaviour and outcomes. However, no actual path or mediation models were reviewed, so it is unclear whether the actual indirect effects have been supported. In addition, the authors repeatedly mention safety skills as a feature with knowledge and motivation, but has this actually been developed? What does safety skill actually look like? The authors acknowledge that the idea of safety skill requires more work, but even the article they cite as an example to have used safety skill (Eklöf & Törner, 2002) really only measured knowledge despite calling their measure knowledge and skill. As such, safety skill is something worth thinking about and potentially developing as a construct, even just to show that it has no effect on safety behaviour.

Another advancement in the workplace safety literature was the adoption of the job demands-resources theory. This theory has proven to be extremely useful because it focuses on an array of job characteristics and contextual factors that either contribute to a person’s ability to do their job (i.e., resources) or contribute to the pressure people face do their job (i.e., demands).  In other words, contextual and job-related demands and resources influence personal resources, which in turn are related to safe and unsafe behaviour.

Again, the literature largely supports this theory. As research on the job demands-resources theory has been fairly substantial, there is a fuller picture of the relationship. Not only do demands and resources rooted in job characteristics and contextual factors indirectly impact safety behaviour through personal resources, they also have a direct relationship with safety behaviour. However, generalizability of the job demands-resources theory is also its weakness. There is very little consensus on how demands and resources interact with each other and what the most important types of demands and resources are to safety behaviour and outcomes. This necessary theoretical contribution will, when it occurs, have important implications for workplace safety research and will have a considerable contribution to practice.

Finally, the most prominent theory in workplace safety research is the application of organizational climate theory in the form of safety climate.  The broader theory suggests that an organization’s collective expectations of how people behave will shape individual- and group-level safety related behaviours.  These expectations typically represent the belief that certain behaviours will be reinforced or punished, and in turn motivate people to behave accordingly. Then, in typical topic specific fashion, the appropriate adjective of safety gets tacked onto climate and we have shared perceptions about the value of safety in the workplace.

The literature on safety climate has turned out to be one of the most productive approaches to explaining and predicting safety-related behaviour.  This includes both levels of safety climate: individual and collective perceptions of safety. However, climate is not the only contextual factor shaping expectations about safety and safety-related behaviour. Other factors include transformational leadership, safety norms, and organizational goal-setting and feedback. While the evidence for these features toward safety-related behaviour is strong, there is disagreement about the intermediate behaviour-outcome expectancy of individuals and the nature of the consequential motivation. The authors argue that safety motivation and behaviour-outcome expectancy produce different types of motivation, the former is a matter of valence (i.e., there is value attached to safety), and the latter is a matter of instrumentality (i.e., the connection between behaviour and outcome is a strategy to achieve or retrieve desired outcomes). Theoretically this makes sense, but empirically I can imagine this would be difficult to separate and is something that will need to be solved to contribute to this argument.

Combining the three theories together, we get the natural tail end of the conceptual model linking individual- and group-level safety-related behaviour to accidents. These accidents in turn have consequences for contextual factors such as policy surrounding workplace safety and perceptions of safety climate. Unlike the previous set of variables, there is no theoretical narrative given to weave these variables together. However, this is arguably unnecessary as it is only one step removed from the previous three theories and can be argued to be a natural consequence of the causal sequence for all three theories.

Nonetheless, the presence of a theoretical explanation for the link between safety-related behaviour and accidents may be warranted.  As much as it is no surprise that safety-related behaviour is related to injuries and accidents, the actual effect size is smaller than would be expected, both at the individual and group level. The authors suggest that part of the story is missing, and other factors outside employee safety-related behaviour play an important role in determining the likelihood of accidents. Therefore, the introduction of a broader narrative encompassing employee safety-related behaviour and accidents will be necessary to fully appreciate the predictors of workplace accidents.

Overall, I found the integrative safety model to be a useful narrative for thinking about workplace safety from a distance. Beus and colleagues provide a good overview of what management and occupational health research has uncovered about workplace safety, what researchers are thinking now, and some speculation as to where we should focus our efforts next. Ultimately, I found this paper to be a helpful exercise to also speculate as to what the future of workplace safety research will look like.

References:

Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti, E. (2007). The job demands-resources model: State of the art. Journal of Managerial Psychology22(3), 309-328.

Beus, J. M., McCord, M. A., & Zohar, D. (2016). Workplace safety: A review and research synthesis. Organizational Psychology Review6(4), 352-381.

Campbell, J. P., McCloy, R. A., Oppler, S. H., & Sager, C. E. (1993). A theory of performance. Personnel Selection in Organizations3570, 35-70.

Eklöf, M. & Törner, M. (2002). Perception and control of occupational injury risks in fishery–a pilot study. Work & Stress16(1), 58-69.

Zohar, D. (1980). Safety climate in industrial organizations: theoretical and applied implications. Journal of Applied Psychology65(1), 96-102.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s