Jenny Baker

Keeping Employees Safe During COVID-19: The Role of Safety Climate

Robert R. Sinclair and Gwendolyn Paige Watson, Clemson University

Safety always has been a longstanding concern for industrial-organizational psychology (Hofmann et al., 2017). Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of workers died from occupational accidents or illnesses each year, and hundreds of thousands more experienced injuries requiring at least one missed day of work (Bureau of Labor Statistics). In addition to the important human costs of workplace safety, the National Safety Council estimated the economic costs of unsafe workplaces to be nearly $171 billion in 2018. COVID-19 transformed the focus on workplace safety from not just striving to prevent the human and economic costs of safety for one’s own organization but to the larger role of workplaces in transmitting the disease across all sectors of society. Accordingly, a wide range of organizations beyond SIOP have compiled resources to guide employers about how to respond effectively to COVID-19 related concerns including the Centers for Disease Control, the Society for Human Resource Management, bcivic.org, and the Society for Occupational Health Psychology to name a few.

Although most organizations have done their best to try to create safe environments for their workers and the community members they serve, the range of organizational responses has been stunning. At one end of the spectrum, multiple professional sports leagues such as the National Hockey Association, National Basketball Association, and Women’s National Basketball Association had players finish the 2020 season in a “bubble,” with players and staff being socially isolated, aggressive testing, and strong policies about appropriate safety behavior. At the other end of the spectrum, troubling stories in the popular press range from an employee who alleged she was fired for wearing a mask at work to workers being assaulted by non-mask wearing customers to organizations simply refusing to follow local/state/federal safety guidelines and mandates. These events have consequences for employees. In fact, a recent survey found that mistreatment by an employer during the pandemic led 68% of respondents to say they would consider leaving their organization, with poor communication being the main reason.

Differences in how organizations respond to COVID-19 related issues reflect the relative priority of safety concerns for the organization. Organizational scientists refer to this idea as safety climate, which is typically defined as employees’ shared perceptions about the relative priority of safety issues (Zohar, 1980). A strong positive safety climate is one in which employees tend to agree that their organization values safety, as evidenced by its policies, procedures, and practices. Safety climate and related concepts (e.g., psychosocial safety climate, health climate, stress climate) have received a great deal of attention in the I-O research community. For safety climate in particular, there is now a base of scientific evidence not just about the nature of climate but about how to intervene in an organization to create a stronger positive climate (Hale et al., 2010; Lee et al., 2019; Robertson et al., 2013). Therefore, in keeping with SIOP’s theme of Science for a Smarter Workforce, we offer 10 science-based recommendations for responding to COVID-19 concerns by focusing on building a strong positive organizational climate for safety.

How can organizations build a strong positive safety climate?

  1. Conduct systematic needs assessments in which multiple sources of data (employee surveys, interviews, job descriptions, safety records, etc.) are used to identify and prioritize safety concerns. These assessments should involve all relevant stakeholders (line employees, support staff, management, customers, etc.); it is especially important to facilitate employee participation in the design of any interventions, policy changes, and so forth (cf. Robertson et al., 2013). For example, employees in customer-facing positions may be able to offer important input on the effectiveness of various COVID 19-related safety measures concerning customer behavior.
  2. Recognize that safety climate is a multidimensional construct (examples include workers’ safety commitment, safety communication, supervisor and management support for safety, trust in safety systems, etc.), and interventions are likely to be more effective when they target specific dimensions identified as potentially problematic by needs assessments. Gittleman et al. (2010) provide an excellent case study of how to use multiple sources of survey and interview data to prioritize safety concerns experienced by construction workers in Las Vegas.
  3. Assess safety climate with a reliable and valid safety climate measure. One commonly used example is the Nordic Safety Climate Questionnaire. The scientific literature also includes several other high-quality measures in the literature of other safety climate measures including short measures and measures tailored to specific industries. These measures can be tailored to address COVID 19-specific issues, although reliability and validity issues should be addressed. Practitioners may want to consult with an organizational climate expert to identify the measure that best suits their needs. SIOP’s consultant locator may be useful in this regard.
  4. Conduct periodic climate assessments. Some research suggests that safety climate measures have limited shelf-life—that they predict safety outcomes in the short term but not in the long term (Bergman et al., 2014). This suggests that climate can fluctuate and routine pulse surveys that address safety concerns may be useful. This is especially important in dynamic situations such as the pandemic where the situation changes on a daily or weekly basis.
  5. Gain top management buy-in—safety climate flows from top management to front line supervisors and teams (Lee et al., 2019), so communication and support from higher organizational levels is vital to addressing safety concerns. Top management needs to demonstrate unequivocal support for the importance of implementing COVID 19-specific safety measures.
  6. Adopt a Total Worker Health perspective, which entails the recognition that safety concerns are fundamentally linked to employee health and well-being concerns, and should be addressed simultaneously. For example, employees experiencing a great deal of job strain or health problems may have difficulty changing their behavior to work more safely.
  7. Provide front-line managers with information about key safety performance indicators (see Hale et al., 2010). This feedback should enable managers to appropriately calibrate how they address safety concerns. Lyden (2020) provides a useful practical discussion of specific key performance indicators for safety, and a web search can identify several companies that offer KPI software.
  8. Train managers/employees about the importance of safety. Typical topics include safety leadership, hazard awareness, and changing unsafe behavior. Many intervention studies focus on manager/employee training as a key strategy to promote safety climate (Lee et al., 2019). But it is important to recognize that one-time trainings are unlikely to produce lasting organizational change in the absence of other efforts to create a safe work environment, and effective interventions usually involve some additional activities such as follow-up meetings, integration of safety discussions into preshift briefings, individual coaching sessions for leaders, and opportunities for employees to provide feedback for continuous improvement. The seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic may create an opportunity for organization-wide safety initiatives to be taken seriously by all.
  9. Ensure that organizational reward systems encourage employees’ safe behavior rather than counterproductive goals such as sacrificing safety to ensure high productivity or discouraging employees from reporting COVID 19-related symptoms. One example is the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aviation Safety Action Program.
  10. Conduct a planful evaluation of the effectiveness of any changes, including pre- and postintervention measurements so that outcome data can be used to drive future change. Marin and Roelofs (2017) provide a good example of this approach to intervention evaluation with a supervisory training program to improve safety climate in the construction industry. This may be challenging for organizations needing rapid responses to a dynamic situation but will be informative when possible. Having key safety performance indicators readily available (see point 7) should facilitate the evaluation process.

These recommendations come from a safety literature that now encompasses several hundred studies. The articles listed below are good places to start for readers interested in a deeper dive into the safety intervention literature.

The authors thank Kimberly Adams and Nerisha Baijnath for their helpful comments and suggestions.

 

References

Bergman, M. E., Payne, S. C., Taylor, A. B., & Beus, J. M. (2014). The shelf life of a safety climate assessment: How long until the relationship with safety–critical incidents expires? Journal of Business and Psychology, 29, 519–540.

Gittleman, J. L., Gardner, P. C., Haile, E., Sampson, J. M., Cigularov, K. P., Ermann, E. D., Stafford, P., & Chen, P. Y. (2010).  [Case Study] CityCenter and Cosmopolitan Construction Projects, Las Vegas, Nevada: Lessons learned from the use of multiple sources and mixed methods in a safety needs assessment. Journal of Safety Research, 41, 263–281.

Hale, A. R., Guldenmund, F. W., van Loenhout, P. L. C. H., & Oh, J. I. H. (2010). Evaluating safety management and culture interventions to improve safety: Effective intervention strategies. Safety Science, 48, 1026-1035.

Hoffman, D. A., Burke, M. J., & Zohar, D. (2017). 100 years of occupational safety research: From basic protections and work analysis to a multilevel view of workplace safety and risk. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102, 375-388.

Lee, J., Huang, Y-H., Cheung, J., Chen, Z., & Shaw, W. S. (2019). A systematic review of the safety climate interventions literature: Past trends and future directions. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 24, 66-91.

Lee, J., Huang, Y-H., Sinclair, R. R., & Cheung, J. H. (2019). Outcomes of safety climate in trucking: A longitudinal framework. Journal of Business and Psychology, 34, 865-878.

Marin, L. S., & Roelofs, C. (2017). Promoting construction supervisors’ safety efficacy to improve safety-efficacy: Training intervention trial.  Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, 143: 04017037

Robertson, M., Henning, R., Warren, N., Nobrega, S., Dove-Steinkamp, M., Tibirica, L., Bizzaro, A., & the CHP-NEW Research Team. (2013). The intervention design and analysis scorecard: A planning tool for participatory design of integrated health and safety interventions in the workplace. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 55, 86-88.

Zohar, D. (1980). Safety climate in industrial organizations: Theoretical and applied implications. Journal of Applied Psychology, 65, 96–102.

 

Bob Sinclair is a professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Clemson University where he also serves as the graduate program coordinator for the department’s PhD and MS degree programs in I-O Psych. He is the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Occupational Health Science and currently serves as associate editor at the Journal of Business and Psychology.  Dr. Sinclair is a founding member and past-president of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology. He has published over 90 articles and chapters in outlets such as the Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Organizational Behavior, and the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. His research interests in occupational health include the economic stress, organizational climate, and occupational health concerns in high-risk occupations such as the military and healthcare.

Gwendolyn Paige Watson is a PhD student in Clemson University’s Industrial/Organizational Psychology program and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Paige is also the current president of Clemson’s Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology. Her research concerns occupational health psychology. Specific research interests include economic stress, positive psychology, and the employee-employer relationship.

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