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How Important is Leadership to Workplace Safety?

July 3, 2013

Can a leader truly influence measurable safety outcomes?  Can their leadership skills and behaviors actually have a quantifiable impact on company safety?  Having good leadership is often cited as a positive factor in creating a safe workplace.  However, it is often difficult to see the effects of good safety leadership on observable safety metrics, such as incident or injury rates.

safety 167584982One of our recent studies examined exactly this - the effects of safety leadership on work-related injuries.  The organization we worked with provided us with records for their leaders on the number of documented first aid and recordable injuries that occurred under their supervision for the previous 3 years (2010 – 2012).  In other words, we looked at how many injuries took place in each leader’s team during that 3-year timeframe.  The leaders included in this study, which included over 180 Foremen and Supervisors in a large power and utilities services provider, completed Select International’s online Safety Leader assessment.  This particular test is an interactive, web-based assessment, which is used to hire or coach individuals in leadership roles where safety is a critical responsibility.  It measures where someone stands with respect to various traits and abilities that are related to successful leadership and group safety outcomes.  A few of these are:

  • Being highly accountable
  • Showing integrity and credibility
  • Having a transformational leadership style
  • Providing frequent and constructive feedback

The results of the test were very positive, and surprising – even for us.  Based on their test scores, leaders were put into one of three different categories (basically, “High”, “Medium” and “Low”).   When we looked at the number of work-related injuries for leaders in each of these three groups, we found that over 50% of the injuries occurred under the Leaders who scored in the “Low" category.  This means that Supervisors and Leaders who had the lowest assessment scores on average tended to have the most injuries in their team over time.  It is interesting to think about the how leaders in this group had different leadership skills, traits, and SafetyDNATM, which resulted in them leading their teams in ways that probably increased exposure, and ultimately, injuries.

The results of this study emphasize the importance of having effective leaders who can build and sustain a strong safety culture through the critical leadership behaviors they engage in on a daily basis. And more importantly, it provides evidence that strong safety leadership is highly related to measurable, quantifiable results such as first aid and recordable injuries.  Therefore, by focusing on selecting and developing great safety leaders, organizations can make a direct and measurable impact on injury rates and overall safety performance.

Four Behaviors of Safe Leaders - The L.E.A.D. Model

Kristin Delgado Kristin Delgado is a Senior Research Consultant at PSI. Her areas of expertise include analyzing data, designing and evaluating selection systems in terms of system utility, validity, fairness, and efficiency, and item response methodology. Kristin is a member of the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology and maintains an active role in conducting applied research.