Organizational barriers to achieving safety have never been more apparent than during recent years. Consider:

  • There has never been more downsizing or “right-sizing” and more pressure for production increases and cost reduction.

  • This has created more stress, more forced overtime, more work for fewer workers, more fear for the future and less job security than ever before.

  • There is a general perception of overload at all levels of the organization. Overload causes more accidents, more physical fatigue, more psychological fatigue, more stress, more repetitive motion conditions and more cumulative trauma disorder.

  • The relationship between the company and the worker has deteriorated in many organizations. Once there were mutual feelings of trust and security. Now many workers may have to “work hurt.” Plus, when workers fear for their jobs and they see that management ranks are so thin, they begin to feel as though the organization does not care for them anymore.

    Are these trends real? What has been the impact on safety performance? Few safety performance measures can tell us how well the various elements of our safety systems are doing in today’s environment.

    Some injury figures (fatalities, minor injuries) show improvement over the years, but they don’t tell us why. Other injury figures (lost-time injuries) show much less improvement and don’t explain the lack of improvement.

    What do employees think?

    One measure that does give us a picture of why we are improving or not improving and which elements of safety systems are working or not working is the perception survey.

    Over the years we have done surveys of all kinds of organizations. Overall scores and scores for each safety system category allow us to make interpretations which we can communicate back to each organization on what safety system elements need improvement.

    In recent years more than 160 companies have been surveyed. All levels (employee, supervisor and management) are surveyed, allowing us to see if there are perceptual differences between levels (and there always are). We believe this does give a picture of how companies have fared with their safety efforts in today’s climate — as judged by the people who really count, their hourly employees.

    We have come to believe over time that a score in a safety system category at the hourly employee level below 70 percent positive should suggest the need to look more closely at what an organization is doing. Three of ten employees don’t think it is working very well. A score below 60 percent positive is a real red flag — something needs help.

    How are we doing?

    Compiling data from 160 different organizations, we do see a pattern of similarities among companies in terms of safety system element effectiveness. For instance, we are not highly successful as a rule in three categories that score on an average below the 70 percent positive (hourly positive response only) level: Discipline (61.5 percent), Recognition (61.9 percent), and Inspections (62.3 percent).

    How are we doing in today’s safety systems? In supervisory performance categories we are a little weak at 66.7 percent positive, as perceived by the workforce. In management leadership, perceptions score a little better at 75.6 percent positive, and employee participation scores better at 75.8 percent positive perceptions.

    So it seems our leadership and management, while not great, are still a lot better than our supervisor-led management systems (inspections, discipline, recognition, etc.) These perception scores should be much better if these systems actually forced supervisory performance through crisp role definitions, good measures of performance, and adequate rewards for that performance. This is accountability, and it’s lacking in many organizations.

    Much has been learned about what determines the effectiveness of a safety system in recent years. Culture is the key. Employees’ perception of the culture of the organization dictates their behavior; and thus the culture determines if any element of the safety program will be effective.

    Culture is established not by written policy, but rather by leadership; by day-to-day actions and decisions; and by the systems in place that ensure whether safety activities (performance) of managers, supervisors and work teams are carried out. Culture can be built positively through accountability systems that ensure performance and through systems that allow, encourage and get worker involvement.

    Finally, culture can be validly assessed through perception surveys, and improved once the organization determines where it is they would like to be.


    Kerr, S., “On the Folly of Reading A, While Hoping for B,” Academy of Management Journal.

    Petersen, D., “Safety Management: On Strengths and Weaknesses; An Update,” Professional Safety, December 2004.