By Madison Hanscom, M.S.
Safety climate is a shared perception that employees have regarding the relative importance of safe conduct in their workplace. This includes the procedures, policies, routines, and behaviors that get rewarded or the behaviors that are expected (1). It is widely understood there are a great deal of benefits associated with having a strong safety climate. A strong safety climate is associated with higher morale, less accidents, stronger safety motivation, more safety behaviors from employees, and so on (2,3). A less visible (yet still important) benefit of having a strong safety climate is the potential to protect workers and the general public from a viral outbreak.
A culture that values safety can also extend to encourage behaviors important to preventing the spread of disease and the sustainment of health, including during this current COVID-19 pandemic. There are ample lessons learned from the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 that can provide helpful insights into our current crisis in 2020. This included how having a robust safety climate in the workplace (particularly in healthcare or essential industries) was directly related to success in combatting the spread and improving positive outcomes (4).
Certain factors characterize companies with a strong, positive safety climate (5). Some include commitment from leadership, substantial and consistent involvement from employees, and attentive safety-related communication. These factors have the potential to make a difference during a pandemic:
A defining component of safety climate is safety leadership. Leaders signal to employees what behaviors are expected and shape attitudes around safety. Strong leadership during a pandemic can provide clear direction to employees, help the company to work through uncertainty, and alleviate fear.
All leaders are important in fostering perceptions of commitment, from executive leaders to frontline managers.
• Executive leaders can show safety is paramount by investing in necessary resources and preparing for anticipated shortages.
• Leaders at all levels should wear the appropriate protective equipment and follow CDC recommended hygiene practices in order to walk the talk. This helps to show that everyone is responsible for enacting the behaviors particularly important during a pandemic.
• Leaders should be sincere about their commitment to protect the safety of all individuals in the company by listening to the needs of workers and delivering on promises.
All of these practices show management’s attitudes surrounding safety are thoughtful, sending a message of importance to employees and customers.
The norms surrounding safety within a company influence the behavior of employees, even when no one is watching. Norms and group processes are components of safety climate, and they act as an informal guide for motivation and behavior (whether in a time of calm or crisis).
• There is social pressure to “do it safely.” This might look like encouraging one another to consistently engage in safety compliance (e.g., wearing protective equipment at all required times) and safety participation (e.g., taking part in safety initiatives, even when it is not required in one’s job description) without fail.
• Employees respect those who take safety seriously and make improvements for a safer future.
This is no exception during a time of crisis. When strong safety norms exist within a company during a time of calm, these standards still exist during a pandemic and extend to how employees navigate additional or more frequent safety practices necessary to mitigate new hazards.
The extent to which employees perceive an effective exchange of safety-related information is a defining component of safety climate and should be a critical point of focus when trying to navigate a pandemic.
• Communication provides information to employees about safety to help inform work decisions (and in the case of a crisis, often times non-work decisions, too).
• It motivates employees in how to perform by giving feedback, direction, and general information about hazards.
• Companies should assess how safety-related communication is shaping the climate. For instance, whether employees value and trust the information coming downward, if employees feel they can raise concerns about safety and discuss them openly to those up the chain, and if lateral communication sustains effective safety norms.
Communication becomes particularly important during a time of crisis. Employees want accurate information, frequent updates, and from sources they can trust. If there are weak perceptions surrounding safety communication prior to a health crisis, this will unlikely change when times get tough.
In conclusion, safety climate is always important, but a time of crisis puts the significance into perspective. Leaders should think about strengthening the culture surrounding safety during times of hardship. However, it is more important to be preventative and initiate efforts to develop a strong, positive safety climate during times of prosperity.
(1) Zohar, D. (1980). Safety climate in industrial organizations: theoretical and applied implications. Journal of Applied Psychology, 65(1), 96.
(2) Casey, T., Griffin, M. A., Flatau Harrison, H., & Neal, A. (2017). Safety climate and culture: Integrating psychological and systems perspectives. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22(3), 341.
(3) Christian, M. S., Bradley, J. C., Wallace, J. C., & Burke, M. J. (2009). Workplace safety: A meta-analysis of the roles of person and situation factors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(5), 1103.
(4) Possamai, M. A. (2007). SARS and health worker safety: Lessons for influenza pandemic planning and response. Healthcare Papers, 8(1), 18.
(5) Neal, A., & Griffin, M. A. (2004). Safety climate and safety at work. The Psychology of Workplace Safety, edited by J. Barling and M. R. Frone. American Psychological Association.