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The Role of Safety Climate During the Pandemic

By: Donald M. Truxillo, Ph.D.

Donald Truxillo is a Professor at the Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick, Ireland. He studies the methods employers use to hire workers and the experiences of job applicants during recruitment and hiring. In addition, he examines issues related to workplace safety and health as well as age differences at work.

When returning to the workplace in the midst of the pandemic, employers and employees are all concerned about safety. In fact, people’s willingness to return to work will largely be affected by how safe they think it is to do so. As we know, many workplace safety issues can be addressed through the use of a physical redesign of workplaces in order to reduce contact with objects and increase the physical distance between people. And of course, the organization must give employees the proper tools and equipment to maintain their safety.

However, in addition to these approaches recommended by medical experts, there are other ways that organizations can support the safety and health of their workers. Research has shown that the organization’s safety climate, or the shared value that organizational members place on safety, is one of the most important determinants of worker safety and health. Organizational safety climate is particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic since safety is largely dependent on the behavior of organizational members – employees, supervisors, and managers.

Luckily, the research also prescribes a number of ways that organizations can support a strong safety climate and safe behaviors among their employees. Let’s talk through some of these ideas and how they might be applicable during the Covid-19 pandemic.

  1. Management as role models and leaders. One of the best ways to promote a climate of safety and health is for top managers to communicate the importance of safety to employees. This comes in the obvious form of top management messaging the importance of safety – everything from emails to web materials. But one of the most important factors, often overlooked by managers, is the importance of modeling safe and healthy behaviors themselves. For example, if top management were to promote a new safety training program, they would need to be among the first to take the training as well. By the same token, if management wants to promote hand-washing, physical distancing, or mask-wearing, they need to adhere to these protocols themselves. Furthermore, managers cannot promote production over safety (e.g., “Yes, I know there’s a safety problem, but let’s talk about it later since we need to get the product out today.”) And managers need to be willing to listen to employee concerns and show that safety is just as important as production. This includes being willing to take actions that may impact production when safety issues are identified.
  2. The critical role of supervisors. Direct supervisors play one of the most critical roles in promoting safety and health. Like top managers, they need to communicate and model safety – and they should be given the proper supports to do so, such as training. In fact, one of the most important determinants of safe behavior by employees is whether they perceive safety as being supported by supervisors. During a crisis such as the current pandemic, supervisors need to be trained on what the organization’s safety protocols are and how to communicate these to employees. They also need to be trained in how to support and address the concerns employees who may be fearful of returning to work or who may be at high risk. Relatedly, supervisors should listen to employees’ concerns and ideas about safety and pass these back along to management in order to address these concerns. And if training is needed to help supervisors know how to talk to employees about safety, that training should be provided. When leaders show genuine concern for their team it can lead to conversations with employees that help everyone to stay safe.
  3. Employees as a safety resource. Obviously, employees are key to workplace safety. But they also provide a valuable resource to supervisors and managers for understanding safety problems so that they can be solved quickly. Employees may be the first to spot safety and health problems in the workplace, and encouraging them to communicate these to the organization is critical for developing solutions. Part of this is that employees need to believe that supervisors and managers aren’t just giving “lip service” to valuing safety. Leaders at all levels need to be willing to have often difficult listening sessions and conversations with employees about problems that need to be addressed. Doing so creates a safer environment for employees, and it can often make employees more willing to return to work.

In short, many organizations have found that a strong safety climate is the secret to successful safety programs. Without such a climate in place, other safety programs and training may be for naught. With a good safety climate, the other pieces of the safety puzzle click together.

Getting them back and doing it safely is your challenge. Preppio is here to help.