New Research: How CEO Behavior Influences Safety

May 23rd, 2017 | By | Category: Featured Articles

EHS Journal - Meeting Better Results by Sigurd Decroos

How can businesses improve worker safety and reduce the high costs of workplace injuries and deaths? And how much of a role do chief executive officers (CEOs) actually have in achieving those goals?

A recently published research paper presents some long overdue answers based on hard data showing how CEOs can bring tangible reductions in front-line worker injuries. The paper, Safety in the C-Suite: How Chief Executive Officers Influence Organizational Safety Climate and Employee Injuries, by researchers at the University of Regina and the University of Calgary, was funded by the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board and was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Psychology.

The need for research-based answers is urgent. Some 2.3 million workers worldwide die each year from a work-related incident or disease. Aside from the human toll, workplace injuries and deaths take a tremendous toll on a business’ bottom line. In North America alone, workplace injuries and deaths cost the US and Canadian economies some $175 billion annually.

 

CEO Impact on Health and Safety

The research found that CEOs have an indirect influence on frontline employee injuries through an organizational-wide collective social learning process. Specifically, the data reveal that the CEO’s direct influence extends predominantly to his or her inner circle of senior-level managers. This is where CEOs initiate the process of collective social learning by prioritizing safety, for example, through investments in maintenance and training, and empowering safety personnel. The CEO’s safety orientation thereby shapes the priority that the top management team puts on safety. In turn, top managers model these safety behaviors to lower-level managers and supervisors. The process cascades the CEO’s safety priority downward, ultimately, preventing frontline employee injuries.

The study’s findings challenge the commonly held “romance of leadership,” or leader-centric view, whose adherents believe that the personal charisma of the person at the top of an organization has direct influence over his/her organization’s successes and failures. In fact, over-emphasizing the CEO’s influence can be a hindrance to understanding the actual social dynamics that affect workplace safety.

 

How CEOs Can Drive Safety Improvement

 

The research paper provides questions that CEOs can use to evaluate and improve their personal safety leadership:

As a CEO who wants to improve worker safety, do you…

  • Insist on thorough and regular safety audits and inspections?
  • Try to continually improve safety levels in each department?
  • Provide all the equipment needed to do the job safely?
  • Consider a person’s safety behavior when moving or promoting people?
  • Require each manager to help improve safety in his/her department?
  • Listen carefully to workers’ ideas about improving safety?
  • Consider safety when setting production speed and schedules?
  • Provide workers with a lot of information on safety issues?
  • Regularly support safety-awareness events (e.g., presentations, ceremonies)?
  • Give safety personnel the power they need to do their job?

 

Future Use

The study’s findings have been incorporated into the CEO Health & Safety Leadership Charter, formed by Safe Saskatchewan, a not-for-profit organization led by a consortium of public, private, co-operative, and non-profit sector strategic partners, to address the problem of workplace injuries, which were particularly acute in that province. The Charter now uses the study’s findings to inform its learning environment for senior leadership by emphasizing practical ways senior leaders can adjust their behaviors to more effectively influence and improve health and safety within their workplaces. Today, CEOs from more than 600 companies participate in the Charter.

 

Data Set

The findings are based on data collected from 2,714 employees, 1,398 supervisors, and 229 staff in top management teams (the organization’s most senior managers of the so-called C-Suite), in 54 small-, medium-, and large-sized private- and public-sector organizations. Participating organizations represented a variety of sectors, including: public sector (e.g., health care) (43%), manufacturing (20%), service sector (13%), commodity and wholesale (11%), building construction (7%), and others (e.g., road construction). Firm size ranged from 15 to 3,085 employees.

 

Conclusion

By applying this very practical, research-based information to their actions, CEOs can be more effective at fostering an organization-wide culture of safety that yields measurable results.

 

About the Authors

Dr. Sean Tucker is an occupational health and safety researcher at the University of Regina and co-author of the research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology entitled “Safety in the C-suite: How CEO’s influence organizational safety climate and employee injuries.” Dr. Tucker provides injury prevention consulting and research support to the Saskatchewan and Manitoba workers’ compensation boards. He also engages in safety-related consulting projects with public and private sector organizations.

Phil Germain is Vice President of Prevention and Employer Services at the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board, the provincial agency that delivers workplace insurance to Saskatchewan employers and benefits to Saskatchewan workers when they are hurt at work.

 

Image: Meeting: Better Results by Sigurd Decroos.

 

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