What We Know About Safety Climate and Workplace Injuries: A Summary of Beus, Payne, Bergman, & Arthur (2010)

What is the relationship between workplace injuries and the perceptions employees have of an organization’s safety policies, procedures, and practices? Beus and colleagues attempted to examine this relationship between injuries and safety climate by meta-analyzing the existing literature. The approach that Beus and colleagues took was particularly interesting because they highlighted a number of important but vastly underappreciated distinctions. They strongly emphasized the theoretical motivation for contrasting directional relationships (i.e., whether injury leads to changes in safety climate, or whether safety climate leads to changes in injuries have theoretical differences) and the separation of climate levels (i.e., we could expect the idiosyncrasies of individual-level psychological climate and the group-level organizational safety climate to have non-overlapping variance to be explained). From a research perspective, the emphasis that Beus and colleagues place on these theoretical and analytical distinctions is strengthened by the fact that they are building on clear limitations of previous reviews on the relationship between injuries and safety climate (Clarke, 2006; Christian et al., 2009).

First, the direction of the safety climate and injury relationship contains two different meanings. In one direction, it is expected that safety climate fosters expectations as to what type of behaviours will lead to certain outcomes. An organization marked by a high safety climate will be one where employees believe that unsafe behaviour is highly frowned upon and that management is committed to ensure that employees maintain a safe work environment. As such, the safety climate-to-injuries relationship will be dictated by expectations fostered by the safety climate. In the other direction, observing or experiencing injuries at work will signal important information with regards to the importance of safety to the organization. As such, the presence or absence of injuries will influence perceptions of safety climate.

Second, Beus and colleagues note how climate can be conceptualized at both the individual- and group-level. At the individual-level we have psychological safety climate, and at the group-level we have organizational safety climate. As Beus and colleagues rightfully point out, very similar phenomena can be quite different at different levels. The idiosyncrasies of individuals, such as their unique experience and worldviews, will distinguish them from the group. However, group norms will shape individual behaviours to make group members more similar in comparison to those in other groups. As such, both individual- and group-level safety climate should have unique relationships with injuries.

Finally, Beus and colleagues note a number of conditional factors on the proposed safety climate and injury relationship. In particular, they suggest that the length of time over which injuries are assessed, the contamination and deficiency of safety climate measures, and the operationalization of injuries will shape the strength of relationship between safety climate and injuries. Length of time over which injuries are assessed was tested as an exploratory moderator, while safety climate contamination (i.e., incorrectly adding modifications) and deficiency (i.e., insufficiently measuring safety climate) should attenuate the climate-injury relationship. Meanwhile, stricter injury operationalization should result in stronger injury-to-safety climate relationships, while broader injury operationalization should produce stronger safety climate-to-injury relationships.

What were the results? Fortunately, there were enough studies to test the injury to psychological (r = -.16) and organizational safety climate (r = -.29) and the organizational safety climate to injury (r = -.24) relationships, but not the psychological safety climate to injury relationship. These results suggest that there is a relationship in both directions, and that the group-level safety climate appears to have a stronger relationship with injuries than the individual-level safety climate.

What about the moderators? Length of time over which injuries were assessed only explained some variance for the organizational safety climate to injury relationship, with longer times of measurement producing smaller effect sizes. Contamination appeared to inflate the prospective relationship between injury to both psychological and organizational safety climates (contrary to expectations), while deficiency weakened these same relationships (as expected). Finally, the operationalization of injuries had a pattern to suggest that stricter operationalization was found to have a stronger relationship in the injury-to-climate relationships, and the opposite for climate-to-injury relationships. However, the confidence intervals overlapped, suggesting that the statistical difference between them is weak.

What is something that managers and organizations can do to reduce injuries and improve safety climate based on the findings of this paper? One finding is particularly important to answering this question. The most common dimension of safety climate is management’s commitment to safety. Beus and colleagues found that this was a much stronger predictor for reducing injuries than vice versa (although the opposite relationship was still significant) and that this was the strongest predictor in reducing injuries than any other safety climate measure. This means that the most important thing that managers and organizations can do is effectively communicate their commitment to employee safety. This can be done in numerous ways, such as providing engaging methods of safety training, safety programs and initiatives, and encouraging the reporting and discussion of safety, accidents, and injuries.  There is little else that can compare to a sincere and invested effort on behalf of organizations to improve the health and safety of employees.

References

Beus, J. M., Payne, S. C., Bergman, M. E., Arthur, W. (2010). Safety climate and injuries: An examination of theoretical and empirical relationships. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 713-727.

Christian, M. S., Bradley, J. C., Wallace, J. C., & Burke, M. J. (2009). Workplace safety: A meta-analysis of the roles of person and situation factors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1103-1127.

Clark, S. (2006). The relationship between safety climate and safety performance. A meta-analytic review. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 11, 315-327.

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