Is workplace safety a top-down or bottom-up issue? Specifically, does safety begin with the employee or the organization? Most would say that organizational safety performance involves both risk-avoidant behavior by employees and the implementation of formal safety protocols aimed at minimizing accidents. This highlights an important distinction between SafetyDNA and safety climate.
While these concepts are certainly related, safety climate refers to employee perceptions of organizational policies, procedures, and practices concerning safety. SafetyDNA, on the other hand, is a combination of psychological factors that lead employees to exhibit a certain level of safety behavior. Essentially, the difference between these concepts is the source of motivation that drives employees to perform their jobs safely. Workers high on the factors that make up SafetyDNA may be self-motivated to maintain safe behavior, compelled to adhere to safety policies set forth by the organization, or both. Conversely, workers low on the SafetyDNA factors expose themselves to risk much more frequently, and organizations that do not prioritize safety (poor safety climate) can put all employees, regardless of their SafetyDNA, in danger. This would suggest that both safety climate and SafetyDNA are critical components in sustaining effective safety performance. The examples described below demonstrate that when a company lacks either sufficient administrative safety climate or employee-initiated SafetyDNA, it is much more vulnerable to negative outcomes.
In January of 2008, a 26-year old employee at Digital Pre-Press International (DPI), a printing company in San Francisco, was crushed by a paper creasing and cutting machine when it unexpectedly activated as she was reaching into it. Tragically, she was pregnant at the time of her death. Following this incident, an OSHA investigation revealed several violations of regulations, including failing to train workers on safety procedures such as cutting off power to machines before working on the equipment. In fact, the violations were deemed so egregious that in a rare event, criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter and OSHA violations were brought against the company owner and pressroom manager, respectively; each are facing hefty fines and jail time. Subsequent interviews with the victim’s coworkers revealed that employees perceived DPI’s safety policies to be inadequate, though this was accepted as the status quo. Safety was not a priority for management, leaving employees to perform their job tasks either unaware of the present associated risks, or knowingly doing so but continuing anyway because they were desensitized to said risks.
Though we often hear about whistleblowers who report safety violations committed by their employers, it is likely more common that employees simply acquiesce, and sometimes even come to defend, these unacceptable practices. Clearly, poor organizational safety climate can adversely affect employee attitudes toward safety and expose otherwise safe employees to on-the-job risk.
Even when a company does enforce a strict safety program, employees will not always comply. Indeed, safety experts have reported that unsafe behaviors exhibited by employees account for approximately 80% of all workplace injuries. For example, a construction worker in New Haven, UT fell from a roof to his death on April 30, 2013. A standard procedure investigation showed that the victim’s company was not committing any reportable safety violations. Further, the company has maintained adequate safety policies and a near clean safety record. The cause of this tragedy was determined to be the own fault of the worker, who had briefly removed his fall protection equipment while gathering materials.
This type of situation is sadly all too common. Individuals who willfully choose to violate a safety protocol or fail to consider the consequences of their unsafe behaviors undermine the efforts set forth by their organization to comply with OSHA standards and protect employees. Thus, it appears that a strong safety climate is virtually meaningless when employees exhibit poor SafetyDNA.
These incidents illustrate the need to place emphasis on safety at both the individual level and the organization as a whole. It is my opinion that safe practices must begin with the organization, with the hopes that a strong safety climate will filter down to employees and elicit dedication and commitment to safety. However, it is equally as important to ensure that individuals within the organization also possess SafetyDNA and work continuously to improve upon it. By approaching it from both of these levels, organizations can than truly take the next steps to further reduce the occurrence of these potentially disastrous outcomes.
Our Guest Blogger this week is Craig White, a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University.
His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance. He has six years of research experience at Tier-One universities (Texas A&M University, University of Houston, Rice University), and has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX. He is also a contract safety services consultant for Select International.
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