Improving Management Support for Safety to Optimize Safety Culture

June 1, 2008
In addition to improving safety management systems, managers need to know how their behavior impacts the probability that employees will follow safe work

In addition to improving safety management systems, managers need to know how their behavior impacts the probability that employees will follow safe work practices (Geller & Williams, 2001; Williams, 2002).

There are four basic ways managers may inadvertently encourage at-risk behavior: fail to reinforce a safe behavior; fail to coach an at-risk behavior; reinforce production more than (or instead of) safety; and model at-risk behaviors.

Leaders may fail to reinforce safe behaviors because they believe safe behavior is expected, they do not notice safe behaviors or they simply are too busy. Unfortunately, some employees may take shortcuts if they never receive praise for operating safely.

Leaders may fail to coach risky behavior because it's uncomfortable confronting others, production goals override safety, they don't think it's a “big deal” or they simply don't know the job as well as the employees performing it. Managers and supervisors are further encouraged to look the other way because employees may go long periods of time without injury. Unfortunately, failure to coach risky behavior implies acceptance and greatly increases the likelihood that employees will take shortcuts.

Leaders may reinforce production more than safety simply because they believe that is what they get paid to do. Placing production first minimizes the importance of safety and increases the likelihood of safety shortcuts and injuries.

Leaders may model risky behaviors because they don't know better, they've developed risky habits or they don't think others will notice. But this sends the message that safety is not that important to the organization or that manager or supervisor.

In one organization, the safety department (and management/supervisors) fought for months to get employees to accept stricter requirements with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as safety eyewear, safety shoes, hearing protection, etc. Unfortunately, their efforts were undermined by a television interview in which the company CEO answered reporters' questions about company profits on the shop floor, during operations, without wearing any PPE. Many employees saw the interview on the news and decided that they didn't need their PPE.

Simply put, safety culture is undermined when managers fail to model safe behaviors, coach risky behaviors, reinforce safe behaviors and balance safety and production demands.

Demonstrating Management Support

Nearly all mangers say that they support safety and don't want to see employees get hurt. However, these values don't always filter down to employees. Here are some guidelines for managers to follow to demonstrate their support for safety:

  • Emphasize safety as much as production and quality, both formally and informally.
  • Always consider safety when making organizational decisions.
  • Communicate the importance of safety as frequently as possible.
  • Recognize that a failure to “walk the talk” for safety leads to employee resentment and apathy.
  • Advertise safety improvements and successes.
  • Hold supervisors accountable for balancing safety and production demands.
  • Increase personal visibility on the floor to discuss safety and other issues with employees.
  • Institutionalize employee input for safety.
  • Ensure that identified safety hazards are corrected quickly.
  • Focus on proactive safety efforts, not just the safety numbers.

Legitimate management support for safety is vital to safety culture. Managers need to discuss safety in meetings and informally with employees. In our experience, managers underestimate how much employees appreciate it when they walk around and talk with them on the shop floor or job site. This provides a great opportunity for managers to interact with employees, listen to their issues and show that they care about employees and generally improve safety culture.

Empower Employees

Employees overwhelmingly appreciate a collaborate relationship with management. Effective managers do a good job of getting employee input for safety and then responding in an appropriate way (Geller, 2008, 2005, 2002; Williams, 2003). In one example, managers and supervisors of a U.S. steel mill were concerned about compliance problems with lockout/tagout (LOTO) procedures.

Rather than immediately going into “do it or else” mode, managers spoke with hourly employees running the equipment. They found that the LOTO procedures were overly complicated and that the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for LOTO were written for engineers, not hourly employees. To solve this problem, they brought in engineers, safety professionals and hourly employees to collectively streamline the LOTO process and revise the SOPs with user-friendly language. Overnight, the LOTO problem became a non-issue.

Employees who believe that management doesn't listen to them or care about them are likely to become apathetic to the organization's safety rules and initiatives. In fact, they may find creative ways to buck the system.

In one instance, employees were ordered to wear safety glasses at all times in the building, even in areas where it didn't make sense to wear them. This site also had a reputation for seldom fixing and addressing serious safety issues (e.g., asbestos in the building). Most employees begrudgingly wore the safety glasses. However, a few employees got creative and popped the lenses out of the safety glasses and simply wore the frames over their noses.

Another organization outlawed baseball caps after an employee cut his head open and told his supervisor that he mistakenly thought his cap was a hard hat. Employees were extremely unhappy with this decision. The following day, nobody wore baseball caps. However, a number of employees chose to wear cowboy hats, sombreros, Dr. Seuss hats and other caps/hats to protest the rule. Again, employees found creative ways to voice their displeasure about being ordered what to do (instead of being allowed input into the decision-making process).

Leading organizations implement programs to solicit employee input for safety, such as suggestion boxes, near-miss reporting, behavioral safety observation cards and environmental audits. Efforts to solicit employee input boost morale and improve safety culture.

Fundamentals of Effective Leadership

In addition to improved management systems and behaviors, leadership and management principles from industrial/organizational psychology have clear applications for safety culture improvement.

According to Yukl (1997), successful managers and leaders exhibit the following behaviors (the term safety is added for emphasis):

Supporting Behaviors

  • Show acceptance and positive regard with safety
  • Be polite and diplomatic
  • Bolster others' self esteem
  • Actively listen for safety (maintain attention, suspend biases, use re-statements, show empathy, ask questions to draw the person out)

Developing Behaviors

  • Provide effective safety coaching
  • Identify safety training needs
  • Explain importance of safety training
  • Verify that safety training has been successful
  • Encourage peer safety coaching
  • Provide effective safety mentoring (show concern for employees' development, provide helpful career advice, encourage enrollment in training, serve as a role model)


  • Recognize employees' safety contributions and achievements
  • Actively search for safety contributions to recognize
  • Recognize safety performance improvements
  • Recognize commendable safety efforts that failed
  • Don't limit safety recognition to a few best performers
  • Provide specific and timely safety recognition

Managing Conflict and Team Building

  • Foster mutual trust for safety
  • Identify shared safety objectives and beliefs
  • Identify specific reasons for conflict
  • Consider a range of acceptable safety solutions
  • Use safety symbols to develop identification with the work unit
  • Use safety ceremonies and rituals to build teamwork
  • Facilitate social interaction
  • Use process safety consultants when appropriate
  • Do unconditional favors for others and show appreciation for favors given to you

Managers who follow these behaviors will improve safety credibility, culture and performance.

Moving Beyond Plateaus

Dramatic improvements in organizational safety performance (and culture) have been made over the years. Unfortunately, many companies have difficulty moving beyond current safety performance plateaus. Improving management support for safety is critical to further reduce injuries and to optimize safety culture.

This article addressed ways to improve management support for safety, including optimizing safety leadership, improving managerial behaviors, empowering employees for safety and enhancing safety management systems. Recommendations to improve safety management systems also were provided for safety training, incident analyses, discipline processes and incentives, all to further improve safety culture and performance.


Geller, E. S. (2008). Leading People-Based Safety: Enriching Your Culture. Virginia Beach, VA: Coastal Training Technologies Corp.

Geller, E. S. (2005). People-Based Safety: The Source. Virginia Beach, VA: Coastal Training Technologies Corp.

Geller, E. S. (2002). The Participation Factor: How to Increase Involvement in Occupational Safety. Des Plaines, IL: ASSE.

Geller, E. S., & Williams, J. H. (2001) (Eds.). Keys to Behavior-Based Safety from Safety Performance Solutions. Rockville, MD: Government Institutes.

Williams, J. H. (2003). “People-Based Safety: Ten Key Factors to Improve Employees' Attitudes.” Professional Safety (2), 32-36.

Williams, J. H. (2002). “Improving Safety Leadership with Industrial/Organizational Psychology.” Professional Safety, 47(4), 43-47.

Yukl, G. A. (1997). Leadership in Organizations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Josh Williams, Ph.D., is a senior project manager with Safety Performance Solutions in Blacksburg, Va. He manages people- and behavior-based safety initiatives and has designed, delivered and implemented behavioral and cultural change initiatives with various organizations. He co-edited Keys to Behavior-Based Safety and has been published in numerous professional and academic journals.

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