Leading Safety by Example: Walking the Walk Saves Lives

Leading Safety by Example: Walking the Walk Saves Lives

Transactional versus transformational leadership. What is most effective leadership style? Leadership overall is a predictor of injury and illness rates.  

One of the questions on the application for EHS Today’s America’s Safest Companies asks about management engagement in safety. Companies with extraordinary safety programs have leaders that are engaged in safety, who recognize the importance of EHS performance to the bottom line and support EHS efforts as part of their goal to be a world-class operation.

Just as at any work site, leadership is critical to establishing safety on the construction job site. Workers who believe that both corporate leaders and the field supervisors take occupational safety seriously are more likely to take the time and effort to work safely.

We know that leadership can take many forms. Which are most important when engaging employees?

Transactional leadership aligns the interests and preferences of team members 
with the organization of which they are a part, while transformational leadership encourages employees to work towards a unified purpose. Both have been associated with numerous positive safety outcomes, such as improved safety climate, increased safety behaviors and decreased accidents and injuries. But it still is unclear how these dimensions of leadership differentially relate to safety outcomes.

Over the past five years, the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) has sponsored a world-class research team from the fields of psychology and occupational health to investigate safety leadership in the construction industry. A survey of more than 1,000 plumbers and pipefitters uncovered some important clues.

Researchers Krista Hoffmeister, Alyssa M. Gibbons, Stefanie K. Johnson and John C. Rosecrance from the University of Colorado, Konstantin P. Cigularov from Old Dominion University and Peter Y. Chen from the University of South Australia surveyed 1,167 construction pipefitters and plumbers to link their perceptions of leadership with their assessment of safety culture and practices on the job.

The Differential Effects of Transformational Leadership Facets on Employee Safety, which appears in the February 2014 edition of Safety Science, found that although most facets of transactional or transformational leadership were related to at least one safety outcome, idealized influence – where members admire the qualities and imitate the actions of workplace leaders – accounted for the most variance. Other key findings include:

  • Taken together, the seven facets of leadership accounted for 40-45 percent of the variation in safety climate, 15-18 percent of safety compliance and participation behaviors, and 3-6 percent of the workplace injury and pain outcomes reported by mechanical apprentices and journeymen.
  • Idealized influence, consisting of attributes (i.e. characteristics) and behaviors, consistently emerged as the most important leadership behaviors associated with workplace safety. Leaders acquire idealized influence when their employees admire their actions and integrity, and adopt them as role models.
  • The most important leader behaviors for developing a positive safety climate were, in order: idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, individualized consideration and contingent reward.
  • Although leadership overall was a significant predictor of workplace pain and injuries, no single leadership behavior contributed significantly by itself. This suggests that although leaders may be able to engage in one behavior or another to promote safety climate and safety behaviors, ultimately, to reduce injuries, they have to be holistically good leaders.

“When supervisors reward safe behavior or punish unsafe behavior, they engage in what psychologists call ‘transactional leadership,’” said Pete Stafford, executive director, CPWR. “They are striking a deal with employees: if I get something I want, you will get something you want. This kind of leadership did lead to some improvements, but it wasn't the most important kind.”

According to Stafford, “Supervisors whom workers admired for their character, intelligence and skills could exercise much more powerful ‘transformational leadership.’ That is, when trades employees saw a foreman they admired making safety a top priority, the workers began to make safety a higher priority as well. “ 

 Stafford noted that other CPWR studies have shown that incentive programs that reward crews with prizes for safe work actually discourages workers from reporting injuries when they happen. This new study suggests that construction workers are motivated better by role models than by rewards for accident-free days.

TAGS: Safety
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