Corporate Culture: The Key to Safety Performance

March 29, 2000
Understanding the powerful role of organizational factors in shaping safety can help you develop a more effective safety program.

In this new millennium, the ways our organizations will be structured are going to have a dramatic effect on the way organizational programs, including safety, will be conducted.

How and why are organizations changing? The old hierarchical command and control management style is being replaced by one that is visionary, flexible, innovative and responsive. This shift in management philosophy means that organizations will be able to respond more quickly to change in order to be competitive. Employees, instead of being viewed as a means to an end, will be viewed as valuable resources, parties to attaining the organization's goals and objectives.

This transition has already begun in a number of companies and is gaining momentum. The reasons are multifold: increasing global competition, increasing knowledge base of employees, development of new technologies, increasing numbers of mergers and acquisitions, new regulations and legislation, and increasing size and complexity of organizations, among others.

Management is learning that, to maintain a competitive edge, it must think differently than the old hierarchical style of maintaining the status quo and being oriented solely to production and profit. This new way of thinking includes the way safety is perceived in the organization. Enlightened management knows that an effective and efficient safety program provides companies with a definitive competitive edge.

The old management style viewed employees and their safety as a necessary evil and considered injuries and accidents a part of doing business. The new management style views employees as valuable resources. These managers realize that they have to provide the role model in the company that communicates the importance of safety throughout the organization. They are aware that what they value and how they behave are the primary methods for getting a positive safety message across to employees.

Though a number of organizations have changed the way safety is viewed and treated, many companies still cling to the old management style. The reason for the difference is based in the corporate culture of the organization.

Corporate Culture

Corporate culture represents the worldview of upper management as embodied in their assumptions, values and behavior.

Assumptions. Assumptions are unconscious and taken for granted. Within the organization, the shared assumptions of management underlie the corporate culture. Examples of assumptions concern the nature of people and the nature of human relationships.

Assumptions about the nature of people have to do with how others are viewed. For example, are people basically lazy? If you give them an inch, will they take a mile? Do they, therefore, have to be closely monitored to make sure they are doing their jobs? Or are people basically hard working and conscientious? If so, give them the latitude to do their jobs, and they will perform extremely well. Depending upon the assumptions regarding people, employees may be treated as a cost of doing business or as a valuable resource.

Another group of assumptions deals with the nature of human relationships. An example is the organizational chart of a company in regard to who reports to whom and how work relationships are structured. Included in relationships is organizational communication concerning who speaks to whom. For example, are employees encouraged to speak freely to management and to offer suggestions and new ideas? Or is there only top-down communication where employees are told what to do and no feedback is expected from them?

These various assumptions are perceived as management's definitions of reality and are expressed as management's values.

Values. Upper management's values represent the organization's standards that influence nearly every aspect of the working environment, including how things "should" be done in the company. They include organizational standards of desired ends and preferred actions to attain these end points. For example, maybe profit is the primary goal and, to achieve this end point, production is stressed over safety. These values are actually references that indicate the correctness of certain beliefs and practices over others.

Management actions and behavior. These values are manifested in management's actions and behavior. They are reflected by what management does, pays attention to, ignores, measures and controls. It is through management's actions and behavior that employees become aware of the organization's meanings and learn what is expected of them and how to behave. Through a reward and punishment system, the culture in an organization is maintained. Behaviors that are rewarded will be repeated. As behaviors are rewarded and repeated, they become unconscious.

Management's influence on safety. For years, safety and health professionals have been saying that management must play the major role to ensure the success of safety programs. Key elements include management commitment, managing safety like other organizational concerns, integrating safety and health into the entire organization, becoming personally involved and assuming accountability for safety. Until fairly recently, there had been no research to back up these claims. Now, there is compelling scientific research demonstrating that management is the key to high safety performance.

Research Results

Various studies delineate the definite relationship between management philosophy and safety performance.

  • The Maine Top 200 Program study demonstrated that companies with the lowest lost-time injury rates were those with the highest level of management commitment and employee involvement (Most, 1999).
  • OSHA's draft proposed safety and health program rule would require employers to establish safety and health programs, and lists "management leadership and employee participation" as the first core element required in the program (OSHA, 1999).
  • Erickson's nationwide scientific study, "The Effect of Corporate Culture on Injury and Illness Rates Within the Organization," showed that those elements most predictive of high safety performance include a positive management commitment to safety and to employees, open communication, encouragement of employee innovation and suggestions, and management feedback to employees, among other elements (Erickson, 1994, 1997, 1999).

What is important for safety professionals to realize is that, with all of their knowledge and skills and the best attitude in the world for building a strong safety program, they cannot, by themselves, effectively provide a safe and healthful working environment. They need management support. That is safety's bottom line.

It is important for safety professionals to understand that a company's culture forms the basis for everything that is valued in the company, including safety. When safety professionals are aware of their organization's philosophy or culture, they can tell where and how it helps or hurts their safety program.

For example, safety professionals attend many seminars and conferences to make their workplaces safer. However, having the knowledge is one thing; being able to implement this knowledge is another. After attending one of these seminars or conferences, how supportive management is in implementing the safety professionals' suggestions depends on the company's culture -- in other words, how it values or views safety.

There are five basic conclusions from the research:

1. Organizational factors, such as tangible expressions of corporate culture, are the primary determinant of the level of safety performance in an organization. Therefore, organizational factors should be the starting point for evaluating safety programs.

2. A positive treatment means positive results. The study showed that the management characteristic most predictive of high safety performance is a positive employee environment. Specific characteristics within this category included caring for and respecting employees, open communication, and employee involvement and participation. This is an extremely significant finding for a couple of reasons. First, it has nothing to do with safety, as it is generally defined. It shows that safety professionals are essentially out of the loop when it comes to influencing the company to have an optimal safety program. Second, the management characteristics of caring for, respecting and empowering employees that increase safety performance are the same management characteristics reported in management literature as being associated with increased productivity and quality, and in the occupational stress literature concerning increased worker job satisfaction and decreased occupational stress. There is also evidence that they are related to lower employee sabotage involving computers, which has been dramatically increasing. It would appear, then, that there is a definite relationship among safety performance, productivity, quality, worker job satisfaction, and reduced occupational stress and employee sabotage.

3. Maybe money doesn't talk. Safety professionals have been traditionally taught to "speak management's language" when referring to the financial impact safety programs have on the bottom line. However, if management does not really understand what safety is all about, it may look only at the salary of the safety professional and consider this an unnecessary cost. This seems to be fairly well documented by the fact that many safety professionals are being downsized or demoted across the country. If management does not genuinely care for and respect employees or share the same values as the safety professionals, this financial approach may not be as meaningful or influential as previously believed.

4. Safety programs alone do not work. The traditional safety and health management techniques, such as regulatory compliance, hazard analysis and safety audits, are not sufficient for an optimal safety and health program. Safety professionals have been diligently performing these duties for years and have realized that they cannot provide an optimum safety program by themselves.

5. Safety programs should be evaluated by organizational factors. Because there is so much compelling evidence linking management philosophy to safety performance, safety programs should be evaluated by organizational factors that impact their effectiveness and efficiency. It is the management philosophy that determines the organizational factors.

Organizational Factors

What are the organizational factors that influence safety performance? The following organizational factors are interrelated and interactive. They represent a dynamic, ongoing system. For convenience and identification purposes, these factors have been separated into seven sections. In reality, they must be considered together when analyzing a safety program.

1. Organizational structure. Management controls the organizational structure. Some of the elements of this structure are directly relevant to the level of safety performance that is realized. Among these are the placement of safety on the organizational chart, the number and type of rules and regulations, who does the decision-making and when, and job, tool and equipment design.

For example, when management encourages employees to participate in decision-making, safety performance is higher. Enlightened management is aware of the importance of employees being able to make decisions about their work environments. In this manner, employees have some degree of control over the way in which they perform their tasks and duties.

There are some definite advantages to a company when employees are allowed to make decisions. For example, problems can be solved more quickly, more people provide input into decisions, and employees are less likely to feel alienated from those who make decisions that affect their lives.

2. Organizational importance of safety. The organizational importance of safety is manifested by how well safety fits into the overall business environment. The perception of safety vs. other organizational concerns is a major indication of its importance to top management. Some examples of this factor include equality, allocation of resources, production and priority setting.

The amount and quality of management attention toward the workplace environment and the selection and training of employees also indicate the relative importance of safety.

3. Safety responsibility and accountability. When everyone takes responsibility for safety, there are fewer injuries and accidents. Safety responsibility and accountability include performance appraisals for employees, supervisors and operating managers, as well as thorough and objective injury and accident investigations.

4. Communication. Miscommunication is common in organizations. Open, honest, understandable communication is evident in high safety-performing companies. Information flows in all directions, and the reporting of near misses is encouraged.

5. Management behavior. Management that is supportive of safety goes beyond legislation and regulations to ensure a safe and healthful workplace. Employees are treated as a valuable resource rather than as a cost of doing business; they are treated as individuals and with respect.

Concerned management goes beyond immediate causes in injury investigations. It does not blame employees for their injuries; rather, it is genuinely interested in the many factors that could be involved, such as the environment, job complexity, fatigue, ineffective communication, adequacy of training or maintenance errors.

When management blames employees for injuries and accidents, safety performance is lower. This situation may occur because of assumptions of human nature held by management. This perception may also be based on Heinrich's virtually unsubstantiated claim that 85 percent of workplace injuries are attributable to unsafe acts by employees.

Conversely, when employees are not blamed for injuries and accidents, safety performance is higher. To blame someone is to provoke defensive behaviors that interfere with objectivity and cooperation. Rather than blame employees for injuries and accidents, causative mechanisms must be explored. Was the employee properly trained? Did production pressures exceed the employee's limitations? Was the employee mentally and physically capable of performing the task? Was the employee working overtime? Most important, was a thorough, objective investigation conducted rather than solely emphasizing a proximal cause?

Basic to management behavior is its value system because, as mentioned earlier, behavior is the expression of values. When there is a congruence between management's values and those of the employees, employees will feel that they "fit" in the organization and safety performance improves. However, when there is an incongruence between the value systems of management and employees, safety performance is lower.

Another expression of management behavior is ethics. When management expresses an ethical concern for employees, safety performance is higher. Management has an ethical and moral responsibility to ensure that employees and others are not exposed to risks or experience harm as a result of organizational activities. Inattention to moral questions is not good for the institution of business. The safety, health and welfare of the work force is such a moral question.

6. Employee involvement. When employees are aware of management's genuine interest in them, they will respond in kind. In this type of an environment, employee innovative thinking, suggestions and decision-making evolve, to the benefit of the employee and the organization alike. One tangible benefit is fewer injuries.

7. Employee responses and behavior. Increased turnover and absenteeism are associated with lower safety performance. High employee morale and commitment are associated with high safety performance. The morale status and commitment of employees is generally related to the way they are treated within the organization. High safety performance, as well as high morale and commitment of employees, is related to a management philosophy based on respect, cooperation and honesty.

Doing Safety Differently

In the past, safety used to be approached linearly. Its various elements were treated in a piecemeal fashion. One of the reasons the old system does not work is because safety is an integrated and interrelated organizational function. It does not operate in isolation in a company.

What is needed is an increase in the overall level of organizational performance, not just an increase in compliance with safety rules and regulations or the implementation of more techniques. Rather, there should be performance measures that address safety issues long before there are injuries and accidents.

Based on the research, an optimal safety program can be achieved through an integrated approach, recognizing the interactive and interrelated aspects of this function, and not by treating it in a piecemeal fashion. All of the organizational elements that affect safety should be able to be viewed in one place. A common ground for exploring and communicating organizational factors and issues impacting safety performance should be established.

The importance of a common safety language cannot be overemphasized. Everyone in the company must perceive the safety effort in the same way. The only way this can be accomplished is through becoming aware of others' perceptions. The best way to achieve this is through perception surveys.

Perceptions are defined as the way people organize and interpret their sensory input to give meaning to their environment, which they then call reality. An organization is made up of many different groups of people with various perspectives. The problem arises for safety professionals when these different perceptions interfere with an optimal safety effort. However, once the differences in perceptions are identified, a common safety-related language can be developed for all employees, including management. Once everyone is speaking the same language, with an awareness of others' perceptions, true safety communication and dialogue can begin.

If a perception survey is going to be used in your company, it must be scientifically valid or, otherwise, it tells you nothing. It must have been rigidly tested to make sure that the right questions are being asked in order to give meaningful answers.


Unlike most of the other operations in a company, the safety effort is part of nearly every program, activity and department in the organization. Its success is directly influenced by the corporate culture of the organization. Therefore, it only makes sense to use an integrated systems approach that includes organizational factors, such as direct expressions of the corporate culture, to improve safety program effectiveness.

The findings from all this research are exciting. In essence, if safety programs are evaluated in a holistic, integrated manner, by including organizational factors, not only will safety performance be increased, but also productivity, quality and worker job satisfaction. Likewise, occupational stress and employee sabotage should be decreased.

The safety professional's potential role, then, is actually much greater than contributing to the bottom line by reducing injuries and accidents. If management is getting the message at its conferences that safety should be managed like other organizational concerns, safety professionals have to be ready to respond. They have to understand the proven effect of organizational factors on safety performance and not continue to rely on outmoded piecemeal techniques that seem to dominate the safety field.

Forward-thinking companies are changing their corporate cultures from the old to the new management style. These are the companies that will incorporate safety into all of their operations, because they know that safety is as an important and integral part of the company and not an isolated function. They also know that companies with lower injuries and accidents have the competitive edge. Safety professionals can help their companies achieve this goal.


Erickson, J.A. (1994). "The Effect of Corporate Culture on Injury and Illness Rates Within the Organization." (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Southern California, 1994). Dissertation Abstracts International, 55 (6).

Erickson, J.A. (1997). "The Relationship Between Corporate Culture and Safety Performance." Professional Safety, 42 (5), 29-33.

Erickson, J.A. (1999). "The Relationship Between Corporate Culture and Safety Culture." In G. Swartz (Ed.), Safety Culture and Effective Safety Management, (pp. 73-106). Chicago: National Safety Council.

Most, I.G. (March 1999). "The Quality of the Workplace Organization and Its Relationship to Employee Health." Abstracts of Work Stress & Health '99: Organization of Work in a Global Economy, American Psychological Association/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Joint Conference, (p. 179). Baltimore.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (1999). Draft proposed safety and health program rule. 29 CFR 1900.1, Docket No. S & H-0027.

Judith A. Erickson, Ph.D., is the president of Erickson Associates, Irvine, Calif., (949) 552-1008, a consulting practice specializing in decreasing injuries and accidents in the workplace by evaluating the organizational factors impacting safety performance.

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