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How CEOs influence organizational safety

Managers and supervisors are likely to play follow the leader when it comes to safety behaviour.

A recent study conducted in Saskatchewan revealed that an organization’s safety climate (i.e., the relative priority put on safety) is shaped by the CEO. The safety-related actions of those at the top tended to cascade throughout the organization and eventually reach frontline staff.

When organizational leaders showcase their support for safety practices with senior managers, the senior managers in turn emphasized safety in their interactions with managers and supervisors. Having a commitment to safety that spanned the organization resulted in fewer injuries among frontline employees. That was the general conclusion of the study, which was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The study, authored by Sean Tucker and Dayle Ehr from the University of Regina and Babatunde Ogunfowora from the University of Calgary, examined if and how CEOs influence frontline employee injuries.

Social learning theory suggests that people learn what appropriate behaviour is by watching others. They learn by recognizing and paying attention to higher-status role models, who model behaviour and use reinforcements (i.e., praise) to encourage desired behaviour among followers.

The study found that those exposed to positive safety values and behaviours from superiors will, in turn, act in ways that are safer.

Overall, the study found that CEOs have an indirect affect on workplace safety, insofar as they rely on senior managers, mid-level managers, and supervisors to operationalize the priority they place on safety.

More than two million people worldwide die each year from workplace-related injuries. Companies are being vigilant in reducing that number, and it starts with effective leadership. A strong leader can have a positive impact on the organization by showcasing a dedicated approach to safety.

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