Is there a connection between workplace safety culture and company profits? In short — yes.
According to research by the Centre of Safety Research, Leiden University, fostering an effective safety culture is a worthwhile endeavour — both in terms of lives and in terms of profits.
This article will cover the key elements of an employee-led safety culture, how it’s different to a top-down safety culture approach, and how, when executed correctly, it can increase employee engagement, productivity, and profit for an organisation.
Finally, you’ll get examples of a real-life employee-led safety culture case study, plus practical steps to create an engaging workplace safety culture that benefits everyone.
Let’s first define what “safety culture” means. The research by Leiden University describes culture as “the ways of thinking, behaving, and believing that members of a social unit have in common.”
Safety culture in an organisation is thus the alignment of attitudes and behaviour to take safety seriously.
Organisations can build their safety cultures in one of two ways: employee-led or management-led.
An employee-led safety culture is where employees:
On the other side of the coin is the management-led approach to safety.
A management-led safety culture is a top-down approach where management is mainly responsible for safety while employees take a more passive role.
Many might assume that by making the management responsible for safety, employees would become more productive because they don’t have additional safety responsibilities.
However, the opposite is true. When management leads a safety culture, employees are more likely to disengage from health and safety, leading to more accidents and lower productivity.
On the other hand, an employee-led safety culture acknowledges that frontline staff are better equipped to perceive risks and ideate solutions to prevent those risks from becoming a severe incident.
In an evidence-based presentation by Mike Wilcock, Head of Operations South East for the Health and Safety Executive, it was reported that less than half of the organisations in the UK operate with an employee-led culture. A vast majority still use a management-led safety culture.
Mike Willcock’s presentation further reveals that over 60% of organisations in the UK operate with a management-led approach.
Meanwhile, according to HSE statistics, just under 700,000 non-fatal workplace injuries in the UK were reported in one year. That same year, the HSE issued £35.8 million in fines in the UK with an average cost of £110,000.
This evidence suggests that a management-led approach to safety doesn’t effectively engage employees to comply with safety processes, which can lead to more incidents. Furthermore, it may even nurture a culture of fear and blame around safety.
For example, many organisations are too focused on a ‘zero accidents’ goal due to the management-led safety culture.
Under the pressure of a “zero accidents” goal, health and safety professionals create complex risk assessments and policies. Frontline workers, sensing this pressure, are scared to report near-misses to already stressed health and safety managers.
Ultimately, instead of creating a healthy safety culture where everyone is engaged with safety processes and compliance, these organisations have created a culture of stress, fear, and blame around safety.
In this environment, employees are more likely to avoid reporting near misses or hazards out of the fear that they will be blamed or reprimanded. When near misses or hazards are unreported, it becomes an accident just waiting to happen.
Another downside to the management-led, zero accident approach to safety is that it limits the definition of safety and silos it to purely injuries and fatalities.
This narrow definition doesn’t account for near-misses. It doesn’t account for a lone staff member feeling uncomfortable or intimidated by a member of the public.
Positive safety culture is more than physical security. It’s also about mental well-being and feeling safe in the workplace.
An employee-led safety culture will consult staff on how to make them feel safer. By raising the standards of how we define safety to go beyond physical security and include employees' mental and emotional wellbeing, employees are more likely to become engaged with safety processes and other aspects of their work.
As a result, organisations can avoid the hidden cost of disengagement. Numerous studies have shown employee disengagement is a prevalent issue that hurts an organisation's bottom line:
In October 1987, Paul O’Neill, the newly appointed CEO of Alcoa, stood in front of a room full of investors in a Manhattan ballroom and said, “I’m here to talk about worker safety.”
The audience was baffled. Instead of talking about profit, taxes, or new markets, O’Neill outlined a vision of becoming the safest company in America.
Before the meeting was over, investors were running for a phone and ordering clients to sell their stock. They predicted this would be the end of Alcoa, but they were wrong.
Under O’Neill’s leadership, the annual net income increased five times, and its market capitalisation rose by $27 billion.
By identifying safety as a critical lever, O’Neill nurtured a culture of excellence that affected every aspect of working life. More importantly, O’Neill took on a unique, never-before-seen approach to employee safety:
As the feedback loop strengthened, staff productivity and happiness rose, resulting in higher profits for Alcoa.
In short, O’Neill was a trailblazing pioneer of the employee-led safety culture and proved that focussing on safety creates results.
When asked how he knew that his unique approach would be successful when almost every investor thought it was doomed to fail, Paul O’Neill said:
“I went to basics. Everyone deserves to leave work as safely as they arrive, right? You shouldn’t be scared that feeding your family will kill you.”
Whether he knew it or not, O’Neill had leveraged the social exchange theory that suggests every human interaction is based on an exchange.
The idea of employee engagement sits within this same theory.
If a company looks after their team by creating an environment that encourages best practices, employees will repay that investment by working harder and going the extra mile.
There is numerous pieces of evidence to back this theory. One of them is a study done with over 6,000 truck drivers, where researchers found:
Considering that the average turnover cost is just over £30,000 per staff member, it's obvious that retaining staff saves you time and money.
People are more likely to stay with a company when people feel valued. One of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to do that is to ensure that they feel safe at work.
The benefits of an employee-led safety culture are clear, but how do we implement it?
It begins by doing what Alcoa did: changing the narrative and moving away from a top-down, management-led safety approach.
There must be systems and processes in place that creates a feedback loop between frontline employees and higher management, which allows employees to take ownership of safety and feedback ideas to improve safety continuously.
Here are a few practical suggestions on how to implement an employee-led safety culture.
To sum up, an employee-led safety culture can positively impact every aspect of working life. Safety is not siloed; it is more than red tape.
The power of an employee-led safety culture is to create staff engagement that improves safety standards, increases health and wellbeing in the office, and creates a positive ripple effect on other areas of the business.
If you’re looking to improve the safety culture in your organisation, talk to us to learn more about how our solutions can help improve workplace safety and productivity in your organisation.