Linking Safety Climate and Behaviors with Dr. Robert Sinclair
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Positive safety climate has an impact on safety performance and safety outcomes. In this episode, Dr. Robert Sinclair, a Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Clemson University and Editor in Chief at Occupational Health Science, explains the link between safety climate and behavior and how to prioritize safety in the workplace with a reward system. He also touches on the importance of safety training and the critical role of supervisory and safety leadership. Learn how to increase employee engagement and improve safety performance!
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Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru today. I’m very excited to have with me, Bob Sinclair. He’s a professor in industrial organizational psychology at Clemson College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences, where they have a huge emphasis around occupational health and safety and the links to psychology. He’s a founding member and past President of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology, founding editor in chief for the Occupational Health Science publication, as well as that contributed to many other publications. Bob, welcome to the show. Really excited to have you with me.
Well, thank you very much for having me. This is a great opportunity to talk about what’s going on in my field and connected to the important work that you’re doing with this podcast.
Excellent. So maybe why don’t we get started with a little bit about your background and how you got interested and passionate about this topic from an industrial organizational psychology and applying it to safety?
Yeah, sure. So, I went into the Marine Corps straight out of high school at age 17 because I was in no academic shape to go to college at that time. But I think during that time, I became interested in just this whole kind of experience of working conditions. Right. And so that how employers make decisions that affect their employees work lives. And when I went to college, my last year of school is majoring in psychology at a small school called the University of Maine Farmington. And my department chair basically said, hey, I think you can write you have to think about going to grad school.
And he said, what are you thinking about doing? I said, I don’t really know. I want to do something maybe with work. And he said, well, that’s called industrial psychology. So, I applied to industrial psychology programs, and I wound up getting accepted to one at Wayne State University in Detroit, where there’s a heavy emphasis on labor and the role of unions in protecting worker safety, health and wellbeing. And a lot of the people I knew there were doing research with unions. And so, it naturally bled into kind of an emphasis on working conditions as an important topic.
Right. And particularly with the fact that really, we spend sizable chunk of our lives working and sleeping most activity. So, it has this great potential to impact what people are doing. And so around that time, the field of occupation, whole psychology was starting to emerge and I really got interested in it in graduate school because of the professors I was working with. And so, one slice of that research was just looking at safety issues, right? And so that safety is behavior at work. And so, behaviors with psychologists are interested in studying.
So, we got interested in this research and just over time and did more and more of it and had some opportunities to work with people up at Liberty Mutual and others looking at safety issues and from this kind of psychological perspective, and really looking at what qualities of people and what qualities of work situations affect their safety behavior. Our topic that safety climate is one of the most heavily studied concepts in that literature, something that we’ve been working on.
So, tell me a great segue. Tell me a little bit about your work around safety climate and the linkage between safety, climate and behaviors ultimately.
Sure. So, there’s a standard idea in psychology that’s not that far from common sense. What people believe they’re going to get rewarded for is what gets done. That’s the behavior they’re going to engage in. And people talk about safety climate. It’s really the organization’s, their sense of the organization’s priority for safety at work. One way that people talk about that is, do you feel like you’re going to get rewarded for engaging in safe behavior, or do you feel like it’s something that’s discouraged in favor of productivity at all costs?
So, people talk about safety climate as a person’s perception that the organization prioritizes safety. And then it’s a little academic. But some people talk about that as a shared perception. So, it has to be something that there’s consensus on in the organization, and that’s what makes a climate. Other people talk about it as just your own individual sense of what you feel like is important. And so, the idea is that when people feel like that’s a priority, it signals to them that they’re valued by the organization and they should be prioritizing safety.
So, a lot of the research looks at how safety climate links to people’s motivation to work safely, to whether they feel like safety is important to them. And it’s part of how they identify with their work. And as you might expect, then there’s a good deal of research to suggest that we see higher levels of safety performance and fewer accidents and injuries in organizations that have this strong, positive safety climate where it’s something that people believe is important. And it’s something where there’s a lot of consensuses in the organization.
So that when you feel like everyone around you all have a sense that this is something that is who we are and what we do that people are going to engage in the safe behaviors. Yeah.
I think it’s a great way to summarize it. You touched on the topic of how people prioritize it. You touched on the element of rewards. Rewards is ultimately an incredibly complex topic to look at when it comes to safety. What are some of the guiding principles that organizations should look at in teams of what they should reward and maybe what they shouldn’t be rewarding?
Yes. It’s a great question. And I think was just lecturing about this in my class the other day. The whole idea is I think if you’re trying to reward a challenge with reward systems, I think is when you’re trying to set up a reward system to incentivize one small part of the job rather than the whole job, so that if you’re incentivizing just a particular set of safe behavior, a former student might email me the other day and saying that her organization tried to incentivize safety by creating these reward cards where the gimmick was that you need to nudge other people to be safe, like wear your mask is health care.
So, every time you did that, you made a check on the reward card, and when you got to ten of them, you get three Starbucks. And this person then said she kind of took this to heart and really tried to go around nudging everybody to the point that when the nurses saw her coming, they go in the opposite direction. And then she said the other part of it was that it kind of fell apart because the employees perceived it as the company sort of encouraging them to kind of snitch on each other.
It’s good example. And there are lots of others about problems with trying to just specifically set up financial incentives for safety through bonuses. And that kind of thing. The classic one that people talk about is that they try to do it at the group level and say that we’re going to reward the group with a bonus if you go 30 days or how many days about an accident, and the problem becomes that may incentivize people for not reporting a small injury or a small accident. That then becomes something worse over time because they don’t want to threaten the bonus of the whole group.
Yeah. We had this conversation. I think it’s the basic notion, I think, is to proceed cautiously with those kinds of incentives. And I think to really talk to employees about how those reward systems are designed and to try to get a sense of by talking to people that are there some unintended consequences that we’re going to be rewarding if we do this? Yeah. I think that two pieces of it. One is I think the reward systems, as I said, I think it’s challenging to pull out one small part of a larger job and just reward that because that’s what people will focus on.
The other thing, I think I don’t have evidence to say this, but I think my sense of what you can reward that’s not going to be counterproductive is safety skill development, participation, safety training, learning, knowledge about safety on the job, those sorts of behaviors. But I think it’s a really challenging issue, and I think that the way people talk about it is you can have spectacular successes when it works well and spectacular failures when it doesn’t. From my perspective, that whole idea of employee participation in the system design is really essential, and it’s frequently not used.
Organizations have these consequences because they don’t talk to the people and say, hey, how would this kind of system work for you in this particular site?
I think your point around really what could be the counterproductive impact, I think, is a really important one. Is there something as well in teams of what level in the organizations? Some of those rewards may be. What I mean by this is we’ve probably all heard of the examples where somebody rewards observations at the supervisory level as an example, and then you end up with people mailing it and just doing a quota system. But if that quota was at a higher level within the organization, say, at the VP level, could they perhaps drive the VP to talk about it reinforce I want quality observations without creating that undue pressure if it’s properly characterized and explained at other levels.
Is there any research on that side?
Not that I’m familiar with, but I think certainly I think you speak to an important issue about if safety is not incentivized at a higher level, if the top leadership in an organization doesn’t have that as a priority, if they’re concerned about what’s on the return sheet at the end of the quarter, in teams of fiscal performance, that’s what they’re going to lead to. Right. And those are the messages that they may say. You can look in all sorts of company mission statements about the importance of safety.
I like to show my students the British Petroleum’s mission statement before the Deep Horizon accident in the Gulf, about how important safety and all that is. And then you can actually go and look at what was actually happening on the ground and that’s I think failure of leadership in a lot of ways. And I think it does go to I think if there’s a genuine incentive for top leadership in teams of safety outcomes, that’s certainly going to benefit your improve safety. But I think it’s not just in teams of the reward system.
But I think you got to really have this as kind of deeper values that are important to the company, because that’s what’s going to be communicated. And supervisors are going to get messages from top leadership about what really is truly important here, irrespective of what we say. And I really do think we do have some research. I should say that looks at top down, where you look at perceptions of safety climate at the very broadest level of the organization that influences supervisor’s behavior and supervisor’s sense of what the priorities are and then that affects subsequently employee’s behavior.
So, I think it is definitely kind of information flowing from the top of the organization down to the front lines. So yeah, I think absolutely anything an organization can do to prioritize safety among top leadership is, I think, going to be valuable. Yeah.
And I’ve seen definitely both sides of the equation from leadership teams that very clearly speak about it as it’s the number one value that we have, and then priorities will never overcome it. They talk about it on a very regular basis. They bring all their senior executives across the organizations together to talk about how we’re going to drive improvements versus the other ones where it’s a priority. And maybe they’ll say it’s a top priority, but priorities can be changed, and sometimes that message will get mixed in.
You touched on supervisory, and I think in my opinion, it’s probably one of the most critical parts around safety is really how the supervisor reinforces, because a lot of front-line team’s members. When you ask them, who are you listening to, they interact with the most with a supervisor. In some cases, supervisor is more important than the CEO in teams of their day-to-day choices and decisions. Tell me a little bit more about what you’ve seen around the importance of that supervisory role and how you can shape it to be more impactful in an organization.
Well, certainly, I think the research is consistent with the idea that the supervisor is kind of the first line of defense and really the most important influence on safety. You can have all the wonderful value statements and missions and visions and all that. You can have all the policies and practices in place that you should have. But supervisors are going to be the ones that determine whether those actually get implemented, whether they get communicated to employees, so that I think they really are vital to building climate, and they have to believe that this truly is something that’s important here.
And that’s where a lot of the intervention research, where people do studies where they try to make changes in organizations and see if it affects safety. Most of those interventions target supervisors, and it’s through things like communication training, through getting supervisors to monitor and set goals around safety behaviors, to seek out feedback from employees. Leadership development around safety issues. Some interventions will actually use coaching. We’ll kind of do more one on one kinds of things with leaders. But yeah, I think that really that’s been the main focus of the intervention literature is to really try to change what supervisors are doing, and if you don’t do that, you’re probably not going to have much of an effect.
So, I think it really is a critical piece.
And I think that it’s also one of the groups that often has a lease investment day in and day out because you see a lot of the leaders will typically have budgets around leadership development. But I’ve seen too often the supervisor gets promoted, and here’s a checklist. This is what you need to do. Or here is a handbook. Good luck with it.
That’s probably the place that needs the most investment in teams of what does it mean to lead around safety? Love your comments around how you monitor how you set goals, how you coach all really critical components. Thank you for sharing some of those ideas. We’re in the midst of the covert pandemic that has brought up a lot of new challenges to organizations around safety. Can you maybe tell me about some of the challenges that you’ve seen and what organizations can do, particularly now that we’re definitely into the pandemic, but not yet.
At the end of it.
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Sure. So, yeah. I’ve been just really troubled by what I see in the news or kind of flipping through on the Internet about all the safety issues. Right. So, I think maybe it’s a good outcome. At least, I think that safety is a little bit more at the forefront of people’s minds now. Sure, whether it will be once the pan damage is over is a different question. But we’re thinking about safety in jobs where we never thought about it before. If it’s like at a Home Depot or it’s a cashier or the grocery store, there are many more safety issues now around personal protective equipment, and all of that.
What I’ve been fascinated by is kind of the opposite side of this of where you see employers that are going out of their way to discourage people from being safe. Right. I’ve seen examples of companies that actively discourage or even will threaten fire employees for wearing masks. We were talking before the recording, but there’s an incident I was reading about just the other day where a couple were asked to leave a restaurant because they were wearing masks, they refused to be served. So, there’s that I’ve also seen with flying that just really troubling numbers of stories of violence toward flight attendants around safety issues now.
And it’s kind of created kind of a disturbing environment for people, I think. But again, I think it’s an organizational leadership question, right. I think there’s always going to be small businesses that have sort of odd ideas about the causes and solutions to the pandemic. But I think the large corporations are really going to be important safety leaders here, and in a way that the government can’t really, I’m a big basketball fans of interest tracking the National Basketball Association’s efforts to mandate vaccines and some of the pushback they’re getting from players.
But it’s an organizational leadership thing. And I think that those organizations are going to play a really critical role in helping us get out of this pandemic. Absolutely.
It also brings the entire question if you start saying don’t do certain things around PPE, could there be a lasting effect prior to the pandemic? If a supervisor would ignore somebody wearing a piece of PP, like a hard hat or gloves or whatever was required to do the job? We knew that the effect was going to be a spin off. Where is it? I draw the line in teams of what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable. And when you start putting a messaging that safety isn’t the number one priority focus, then that’s not where I’m going to start investing.
I would imagine that would have long-term effect, although we probably don’t know yet.
Yeah. One general thing with safety with accidents and injuries. I think one of the big management challenges is that accidents are relatively low base rate phenomena. Right. So that even in very dangerous environments, they’re not happening on a daily basis for the most part. And then if you talk about moderately safe environments like hospitals, it’s just you’re trying to manage in a way to avoid something that has a low likelihood of happening. But when it does happen, it could have potentially severe consequences. And I think it’s hard for people to Orient their behavior around things that don’t seem very likely to happen.
A lot of the whole conversation around phobia is that some people say, well, I have no chance of getting this or a very low chance. And even if I do get it as a pretty high survival rate. So why should I be talking about the whole transmitting to other people all the stuff, right? Yeah. I think that.
As you said.
Then you add in an environment where people haven’t been really closely attending to the stuff in the past, it’s going to take a lot of effort to make a transition, I think, to get people to behave safely. And I don’t think from a scientific perspective, we have great evidence to say these are the five things that you need to do. But I think we can say that supervisors are going to play a critical role. Top leadership is going to drive that certainly the dynamics of employees in a group.
If you look at how groups change, it’s, probably if you can get a couple of people to start wearing masks and environment, maybe that will be the catalyst that gets other people to behave more safely, too. So, I just think it’s one of these problems that you have to attack from lots of different directions in a lasting way. I think that one of the challenges with safety, as an example is that it’s conceptualized as in some cases, as the mandatory 1 hour of training you need to do each year for my own organization, we do fire extinguisher safety training right.
And it’s 20 minutes Internet thing each year on the different types of fire extinguishers, and within ten minutes of completing it, I’ve forgotten what was in the training, and then I have to do it again the next year. So, I think that the true commitment to safety is something that’s more of a daily week to week, month to month kind of focus.
It almost becomes a lifestyle choice in teams of recognizing how do I remove risks out of my day? And the more like I’m sure you’ve talked to I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve had serious injuries and how it was life changing. You realize that you may have never thought it was going to happen to you because you thought you were safe, but it doesn’t take much for one thing to go horribly wrong and to have a catastrophic impact. And that can wake some people up to say, I need to live my life where I factor that in because of those I love.
Yeah. I think you hit on really important point is that people have this kind of invulnerability thing. This isn’t going to happen to me. It’s the kind of thing that happens to other people, right? Unfortunately, with safety is kind of classic examples. Kovit is another classic example that by the time it happens and you wake up and realize it’s too late in a lot of cases so that it’s definitely I think an interesting area psychologically to try to shift people’s sense of priorities around safety. That’s why I think this whole area of climate is so important is it’s got to become something that kind of filters through the whole organization.
The other thing I say about it is that there are secondary benefits, too, that now we’re beginning to look at research on climate and as it relates to issues like employee engagement. I think signaling that safety is a priority signals to employees that they are valued by the organization. And we have tons of research on retention and job performance and job engagement and job stress. The sense that the company values you and cares about you as a person is a pretty critical factor in lots of positive outcomes that organizations want, right?
I think it’s not just about preventing accidents, but it’s about really building. We now talk about total worker health is kind of a term we refer to. And that idea of total worker health is something that doesn’t just benefit the employee. It benefits the organization in the long run as well. Yeah. Absolutely.
There was actually a gentleman I was talking to a while back and he was running a construction project at a refinery site, and they had done some amazing things around safety leadership, really creating an incredibly caring culture. And the part that’s astronomical. It was not just the injury rate that was different. Absenteeism rates were totally different by I think it was like 2030 points difference between this side versus other sites. Turnover was basically almost nonexistent. It was people who chose to go somewhere else because they had a family emergency to go back in a different state.
So very different experience would also reduce some of the operating costs because turnover is expensive, absenteeism is expensive and so forth. So really showing the linkage between creating that great climate that you want to stay safe and other outcomes.
Yeah, you touched on. I think one of the challenges with safety is and I’m certainly not an expert in this part, but I just read a little bit about organizational accounting around safety issues, and so the safety of the cost is accounted for kind of separately from business units. So, I can’t say in my Department of Psychology that we spend X amount of safety issues, accidents cost X amount in our budget. It’s a separate budget item so that it becomes harder to link it. I think fiscally to become hard to manage around the fiscal side.
I think that’s a big factor in why often doesn’t get as much priority as it maybe should.
Really appreciate upcoming on the show. Sharing some Thoughts we’ve covered a great number of really important topics, from linking safety climate to behaviors. Talking about some of the elements around safety rewards, the importance of supervisory skills, and really some of the themes that are prevalent now in teams of some of the new challenges that exist around the Kova case. But I can certainly see I’ve talked to organizations that have done magically in this. They’ve really done a huge step forward for the organizations because they demonstrate that safety came first and they use it as a catalyst to move probably one person shared, they move six years’ worth of progress around safety climate in six weeks just because of the perception, the emphasis.
So, if you do the right things, the impact, I believe, will be lasting because you’ve demonstrated active care to level that nobody else had been able to proceed before. So really appreciate you coming on the show and sharing some of your thoughts.
Yeah. Well, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about this. It’s a really important topic. And anybody out there that’s looking to talk about safety research and shoot me a note at Clemson. My email address is Sinclair at Clemson.edu and happy to chat about this or point you to an expert that can help you with a problem or anything else. And again, thank you for having me on and I hope you have a great rest of your day.
Thank you, Bob.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Bob Sinclair is a Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology, having previously held faculty positions at Portland State University (2000-2008) and the University of Tulsa (1995-1999). He currently serves as the graduate program coordinator for the Department of Psychology’s Ph.D. and MS programs. Dr. Sinclair is a founding member and past-president of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology and a Fellow of the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology and American Psychological Association. He is the founding Editor-in-Chief for Occupational Health Science as well as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Business and Psychology and an editorial board member of the Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, and Group and Organization Management. His published work includes over 80 book chapters and peer reviewed journals such as the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Journal of Applied Psychology, and Journal of Organizational Behavior. He also is the editor of four volumes including Building Psychological Resilience in Military Personnel: Theory and Practice (2013, with Tom Britt), Research Methods in Occupational Health Psychology: Measurement, Design, and Data Analysis (2012, with Mo Wang and Lois Tetrick), Contemporary Occupational Health Psychology: Global Perspectives on Research and Practice, Vol. 2 (2012 with Jonathan Houdmont and Stavroula Leka) and Vol. 3 (2014 with Stavroula Leka). His research interests focus on Occupational Health Psychology – the application of theories and methods of psychology to the study of worker safety, health, and well-being. His current research focuses on (1) economic stressors (such as job insecurity and perceived income inadequacy) and health, (2) building organizational climates that enhance worker safety, health, and well-being, and (3) occupational health risks in special populations such as healthcare (physicians/nurses) and military personnel.