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Do CEOs influence safety?

A company-wide memo regarding health and safety at the workplace delivered by the CEO through email may not carry much weight with employees, especially those furthest from the top along the front lines.

But when a CEO’s safety messaging is delivered to management and direct supervisors and passed along to employees at every level, the message begins to take hold.

Furthermore, when employees see a CEO observing workplace safety practices and following up with praise or critiques, the notion that safety is a priority becomes real.

A recent study found that a CEO’s approach to health and safety at the workplace plays a vital role in safety culture within the company. But just how much of an influence do CEOs have when it comes to workplace safety?

That’s the question University of Regina associate professor Sean Tucker and fellow researchers have attempted to answer with a new study, “Safety in the C-Suite: How CEOs Influence Organizational Safety Climate and Employee Injuries,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and co-authored by Tucker and colleagues.

Driven by their persuasive personalities and abilities to align groups with ideologies, CEOs will cascade messages throughout a company by what is called a ‘trickle-down’ effect. Senior management will deliver the message to lower-level management before it eventually reaches those working on the front lines.

“You can have a senior leader who’s really strong in their beliefs about health and safety, but if there isn’t a follow up, it doesn’t necessarily create that trickle-down effect,” noted Phil Germain, vice-president of prevention and employer services at Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board. “That’s a lesson we all learned there. Does leadership matter? Absolutely. But is there a direct correlation? No, it’s actually indirect. CEOs need to make sure directors and VPs are paying attention to certain things.”

One of the more important findings of this study was the impact CEOs and senior leaders would have on employees when they followed words with actions. Visiting staff on the front lines, praising those who followed safety policies and taking note of those who didn’t, and then following up with senior management to talk about the observations were critically important.

By far the most important takeaway of this research, according to Tucker, is the importance of the conversations CEOs have with their senior leadership team. These conversations really matter in the sense that they demonstrate to senior managers the priority that the CEO places on safety as opposed to other priorities like production, service or profit.

Actions, Tucker said, must support those conversations.

“CEOs can’t expect positive safety performance in their organization when their words and actions related to safety are inconsistent. They can’t make espousals about the importance of safety in their organization, but then turn around and make a decision that clearly puts another priority ahead of safety.”

The study by Tucker, an associate professor of human resource at the U of R, and colleagues was based on data collected from 2,714 employees, 1,398 supervisors, and 229 in top management teams in 54 small-, medium- and large-sized private and public sector organizations.

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