Survey Says: Uncovering Employees' Views about Safety

Jan. 26, 2006
Are you effectively assessing the impact of corporate culture on safety performance?

There are those who still think that effective safety programs result solely from adhering to compliance issues despite substantial evidence to the contrary. Numerous studies have demonstrated the importance of organizational cultural issues such as management commitment, employee involvement, communication and treatment of employees as pivotal to the success of a safety program and other areas of organizational functioning.1,2,3,4,5

In actuality, we need both safety program and safety process elements. Safety program elements are those inherent to managing safety compliance and regulatory issues effectively and efficiently. Safety process elements are those organizational influences or factors underlying the relative success of the safety program.

These influences drive or hinder safety program success. They represent the organizational philosophy, or culture, underlying the safety function. Studies have demonstrated that positive organizational attitudes toward safety are directly linked with objective injury data.6,7,8 Therefore, as long as people solely zero in on the safety program, there only will be short-term fixes because the symptoms, not the causes, of safety experience are all that are being addressed.

Conducting assessment surveys that uncover employees' and management's perceptions of the safety process and the corporate culture can reveal some surprising results that might lead to a safer workplace.

Integration of Safety

One of the goals we often hear mentioned by safety professionals is making safety an integral part of organizational functioning. However, in order to accomplish integration, we have to examine related aspects of the organization. Assessing the safety program alone is not going to be successful. The bottom line is that we cannot integrate safety if we look at it in isolation, as if it is related to nothing else in the organization. Therefore, in order to make a tangible difference, we must look at the overall company, including how it operates and what it values. We have to examine and assess its culture.

Role of Corporate Culture

Fundamental to understanding corporate culture is the appreciation of the roles played by assumptions and values.9,10 Assumptions, unconscious and taken for granted, determine the way we view human nature and human relationships. These assumptions then are expressed as our values, what we believe to be right or wrong or our preferred way of dealing with the world. These values then are expressed in the way we act and behave.

Our assumptions about human nature can be either essentially positive or negative. If they are positive, we see people striving, caring and working safely. Conversely, with negative assumptions about human nature, we see people goofing off, not caring and purposely working unsafely.

In an organization, the culture is driven from the top.9,10,11 However, not all communication originates from this level. There often are numerous hierarchical layers in a typical organization and these often contribute to miscommunication. One of the reasons for this miscommunication derives from the fact that people in a company are oriented to their own priorities. Since we have different positions in a company, with their related priorities, we have different perceptions. Perceptions are defined as the way we interpret reality through what we see and hear. For example, if we expect to see untrustworthy employees, that is what we perceive we have.

Having different perceptions is a normal situation in companies and is detrimental only when they interfere with safety and organizational functioning. By not perceiving in the same way, people have perceptual gaps. These gaps are virtually the same as communication gaps because messages are not getting through. In other words, even when people are talking about the same subject, they are not communicating. This seems to be a common situation when it comes to the subject of safety.

Importance of Perception Surveys

To have an optimal safety program, we should strive to perceive safety in the same way, with the same definitions and relationship to the organization. Many safety perception surveys are available to meet this need. However, not all perception surveys are of equal value because a number of them are not validated.

For a survey to be valid, the questions must be based on scientific research.12 What this means is that when you choose a perception survey that has a scientific basis, you are assured that the questions are accurately measuring the concepts they are intending to measure. There is a statistically significant relationship between the questions asked, which are directly related to safety performance, and the responses achieved. The meaning of responses is known and the survey has both definitional and predictive properties.

On the other hand, if survey questions are not based on science, responses to them may be ambiguous and open to interpretation because they have no basis in theory or fact.

Theory in Action

I once gave a presentation to a company at which one of the safety professionals commented that if he asked employees what they want, they would want only expensive and difficult solutions. That has not been my experience and it also is not supported by numerous research studies.13,14,15,16 In reality, this safety professional's statement was most likely revealing his negative perception of employees.

What is interesting is that people often balk at theory as not being applicable to the real world, yet here was a dramatic example of theory in action: This safety professional's negative assumptions regarding human nature were biasing what he thought employees wanted. As long as safety professionals have negative attitudes concerning employees, there would seem to be little or no viable chance of increasing safety performance in that company.

Employee Behavior

If employees have been properly trained for their tasks, both during an initial orientation, periodically (i.e., retraining fork lift operators) and whenever new machinery, processes or procedures are introduced, there is no reason why safety professionals and supervisors should routinely take time from their legitimate responsibilities to make sure the employees are working safely.

Of course, if you observe unsafe behaviors, you should question employees as to the reasons. Their answers often have to do with their perceptions or the reality of their working environment. For example, if production deadlines are stressed over safe performance a relatively common occurrence in companies employees are going to take shortcuts in order to get the product out the door.

However, this instance is not the fault of the employee. This is the charge given by his or her supervisor, who was given this responsibility by higher management. If the employee does not meet this charge, he or she may not have a job. Therefore, the cause of this behavior lies with the culture of the company, not with the employee. In fact, studies have found a direct organizational-performance link.1,17 A Netherlands study found that work pressure was a major cause of work-related accidents.18 One researcher has shown that if production is stressed over safety, employees will infer that managers consider safety a low priority regardless of what they say about its importance.19

As a safety manager and as a consultant, I have spoken with and observed many employees. With rare exceptions, employees care about their safety and about the quality of work they perform. There are employees who work in an unsafe manner, but in my experience, they do not make up the majority of employees. Yet, there are safety intervention programs that target the way employees behave at work as if their behavior occurs spontaneously and willfully, irrespective of a given context. Rather than stressing employee behavior, the environment in which this behavior occurs should be explored, because behavior generally occurs for a reason and nearly always occurs within a given context. Therefore, as safety professionals, we should be looking for the elements within the employees' work environment and the organization that are driving this behavior.

For example, by looking at employee behavior as the primary cause of injuries and accidents, usually as a short-term solution, there is little consideration of how wider organizational variables might affect safety performance.8 Therefore, we must first consider all of the following variables since they are assumed to cause, affect or influence the outcome. They must be taken into account and explained before we look at employee behavior as the fundamental cause of injuries and accidents.20 Examples of some of these variables include:

  • Fatigue
  • Ineffective communication
  • Overtime
  • The environment temperature, air quality, humidity, etc.
  • Job complexity
  • Psychological stress work-related, financial, marital, etc.
  • Injury and accident investigations objective, thorough root-cause analyses
  • Adequacy of training
  • Maintenance errors
  • Production pressures
  • Mental and physical capability to perform task(s)
  • And, of course, organizational culture.


In order to incorporate safety process elements into the safety program or assess the safety functioning from an organizational, rather than solely a regulatory- or compliance-based perspective, we have to reframe. This means we have to change our usual thinking and analytical processes and look at safety from another perspective. By relating ideas that appear to be unrelated, we are able to encourage creative solutions.

This is not always easy to do because we become accustomed to thinking in a certain way about certain things, including the way we do safety. This is a common human condition because there is comfort in the known and familiar since it is our usual way of thinking and acting. Therefore, to try to think differently can be somewhat uncomfortable or even threatening. However, we neither grow nor progress if we remain static in our thinking.

One way we can reframe is through adopting critical thinking.21,22 Critical thinkers:

  • Are open-minded and mindful of alternatives.
  • Ask pertinent questions before they blindly accept information.
  • Try to be well-informed.
  • Form independent opinions.
  • Develop a sound foundation for what they accept or reject.

Therefore, we should think critically before adopting any type of safety intervention. Too many safety programs are not scientifically based. For example, Heinrich's postulate that 85 percent of injuries are due to unsafe acts23 has never been scientifically demonstrated, yet there are numerous safety intervention programs predicated on that supposed fact.

There are so many words, so many claims and so much hype for various safety intervention programs that it is difficult for the recipient of safety services to be able to sort through what is real and what is not. If we are truly serious about increasing safety performance and integrating safety into the organization, we must begin to think critically. Just because something has been traditionally said or practiced does not mean it is correct or that it is going to increase safety performance in the long term.

Commitment to Safety

It is often heard that we need the support and commitment of management in order to have optimal safety performance. As true as that may be, high safety performance also requires the commitment and support from others, including the safety professionals themselves. A surprising, unwelcome and occasional response from clients' employees has been the perceived lack of caring on the part of some safety professionals.

Therefore, introspection and reorienting of the assumptions concerning human nature may be in order for some safety professionals because in some companies, the true safety message is not getting across. Unfortunately, the employees sense this as evidenced when the author has received comments from employees such as, "get someone in safety that really cares about us."

Getting Real

Only when we talk about real-world scenarios can we get to the root of what really is going on in the organization. Only then, once situations are realistically defined, can we start talking about real solutions. When employees say they do not report hazards or injuries because their supervisor physically threatens them if they do, safety professionals and plant managers need to have this knowledge in order to rectify the situation. When we are talking about real-world examples, as are derived from validated surveys that ask the right questions concerning safety performance, only then do we get such responses. All the jargon, catchy phrases, buzz words, techniques and busy work of many safety interventions do not even begin to scratch the surface of the reality of many workplace situations.

One of the reasons traditional safety interventions usually are not going to reveal such situations is because many of them do not take a systems approach. A basic tenet in systems is that nothing happens in isolation; everything is related to everything else.24 So why is it that so many companies continue to view safety as independent from all other areas of organizational functioning when it has been clearly demonstrated that it is not?

The Role of Management

When managers read statements such as, "If management doesn't care about my safety, then I don't care," they generally are surprised. For, like most employees, most managers care about employee safety as well as producing a quality product or service. However, if managers do not intend to send a negative message about working safely, but that is the message the employees hear, what is going on? It all comes down to the cultural elements that are in place: the type of communication that occurs, the organizational structure, management leadership and employee involvement, among others.

For example, in a heavy-manufacturing facility, thousands of dollars' worth of finished parts stored on a pallet crashed to the floor. The entire management team rushed to assess potential damage. From the perception survey, we discovered that not one manager asked the employees if they were injured. Should we assume that this was bad management that did not care about employees? Not necessarily. The production of high-quality manufactured goods was their responsibility, for which they were held directly accountable, so of course they had great concern. Understandably, they were completely focused on the event, but the employees perceived that management did not care about them.

However, this company did care about employees. There were a number of examples of their caring, including a rather expensive employee empowerment program encouraging employee suggestions. This evidence of caring, including its associated costs, was negated through management's actions during the crisis. The bottom line is that companies cannot buy outside programs to increase safety performance or employee involvement. Rather, these outcomes require buy-in from everyone in the company.

In the above instance, management was completely unaware of how the employees perceived the event at the time. They are now aware that fulfilling their management responsibilities and caring for employees are not mutually exclusive; they can easily occur at the same time.

Well after a year of receiving the survey results, this company was experiencing higher safety performance and greater employee involvement. What makes this progress even more significant is the fact that these advances occurred despite adding new equipment and personnel while consolidating two plants. As we know from accident investigation courses, there is an increased probability of injuries when organizational changes occur,25 yet just the opposite situation occurred in this company.

Management Reluctance to Use Surveys

Sometimes management does not want to use perception surveys because it is afraid of opening a can of worms, hesitant to learn what will be exposed. Whether managers become aware of employee responses or they do not, the situations still exist and they silently chip away at profit, productivity and safety. This potential issue of management reticence should be addressed not only by the survey design, but also by the survey process. Employees should be given targeted information that is directly relevant to their concerns.

On the other hand, management should be given information over which it has control and influence. It thereby learns what is going on and is provided with ways to correct situations. As a result of this knowledge and awareness, solutions to problems can be designed. In fact, my experience has been that management is extremely receptive to the survey findings because definitive problem areas are identified and recommendations for courses of action are provided.

A plant manager recently responded to the survey results by saying, "Well done and a very useful report for us." Sure, this company discovered some less-than-ideal perceptions among employees but the management team had the insight and willingness to realize that a validated, scientific survey is actually an operational tool, one that can overcome roadblocks to optimal safety and organizational functioning.

Getting There

One of my favorite quotes is by Oliver Wendall Homes. He said, "A person's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions." This quote is shared with all clients when I present final survey results, because the essence of this quote is exactly what a well-designed, validated perception survey should accomplish.

By making people aware of what is really going on in the company not only on a cognitive basis, but also on emotional and subjective bases, they cannot revert to how they previously thought and operated. They have new knowledge and insight and can formulate goals and action plans accordingly based on relevant, statistically significant data pertinent to their operations. Therefore, they can devote their energies to the defined areas of concern, rather than guessing at or intuiting where they should focus.



1 Erickson, Judith A. "The Effect of Corporate Culture on Injury and Illness Rates within the Organization." (1994). (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Southern California, 1994). Dissertation Abstracts International, 55 (6).
2 Erickson, J.A. (2001) "Corporate Culture: The Key to Safety Performance." Occupational Hazards, 62 (4), pp. 45-50.
3 DeJoy, D.M., Schaffer, B.S., Wilson, M/G., Vandenberg, R.J., & Butts, M.M. (2003) "Creating Safer Workplaces: Assessing the Determinants and Role of Safety Climate." Journal of Safety Research, 35(1), pp. 81-90.
4 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.
5 Neal, A., Griffin, M.A., & Hart, P.M. (2000). "The Impact of Organizational Climate on Safety Climate and Individual Behavior." Safety Science, 34 (1-3), 99-109.
6 Zohar, D. (2000). "A Group-Level Model of Safety Climate: Testing the Effect of Group Climate on Microaccidents in Manufacturing Jobs." Journal of Applied Psychology, 85 (4), pp. 587-596.
7 Barling, J., Loughlin, E., & Kelloway, E. (in press) "Development and Test of a Model Linking Safety-Specific Transformational Leadership and Occupational Safety." Journal of Applied Psychology.
8 Parker, S.K., Axtell, C.M., & Turner, N. (2001.) "Designing a Safer Workplace: Importance of Job Autonomy, Communication Quality, and Supportive Supervisors." Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6 (3), pp. 211-228.
9 Shein, Edgar H. (1988). Organizational Culture and Leadership. Jossey-Bass.
10 Schein, E.H (1990). "Organizational Culture." American Psychologist, 45 (2), 109-119.
11 Deal, T. D. & Kennedy, A. A. (1990). Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Addison-Wesley.
12 Erickson, J. (September 1999). "Perception Surveys." The Compass: Management Division News (pp. 3, 14 ). American Society of Safety Engineers.
13 Ashkenas, R. N., Ulrich, D., Prahalad, C.K., & Jick, T. (1995). "The Boundaryless Organization: Breaking the Chains of Organizational Structure." Jossey-Bass.
14 Bennis, W. G. (1994). On Becoming a Leader. Perseus.
15 Karasek, R. & Theorell, T. (1990). Healthy Work. Basic Books.
16 Drucker, P. F. (1993). The Practice of Management. Harper Business.
17 Vredenburgh, A.G. (2002). "Organizational Safety: Which Management Practices are Most Effective in Reducing Employee Injury Rates?" Journal of Safety Research 33, 259-276.
18 European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. "Work Pressure is Major Cause of Accidents at Work"
19 Zohar, D. & Luria, G. (2004) "Climate as Social-Cognitive Construction of Supervisory Safety Practices: Scripts as Proxy of Behavior Patterns." Journal of Applied Psychology, 89 (2), pp. 322-333.
20 Erickson, J.A. (February 2001) Increasing Safety Performance by Working Within the Organization. Proceedings of the American Society of Safety Engineers Behavioral Safety Symposium. Orlando.
21 What is critical thinking?
22 Browne, M.N. & Keeley, S. M. (2003). Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking. (7th Ed.). Prentice Hall.
23 Heinrich, H.W. (1931). Industrial Accident Prevention. McGraw-Hill.
24 Roland, H.E. & Moriarty, B. (1983). System Safety Engineering and Management. John Wiley & Sons Inc.
25 Ferry, T.S. (1981). Modern Accident Investigation and Analysis: An Executive Guide. John Wiley & Sons.

Judith A. Erickson, Ph.D., is the author of the seminal 3-year study, "The Effect of Corporate Culture on Injury and Illness Rates Within the Organization." The research findings of her nationwide study have been presented at national and international conferences and published in professional journals. Other research, most notably from business schools, work psychology and human resources, replicate Erickson's original findings concerning the importance of culture on organizational excellence. Erickson brings more than 20 years' of experience to the field of occupational safety and health. She is president of Erickson Associates, an Irvine, Calif., consulting practice that specializes in decreasing injuries and accidents by evaluating organizational factors impacting safety performance. She can be reached at (949) 552-1008.

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