CEOs have vital, but indirect, influence on safety, finds research

Top leaders create safety climate that reduces injuries on the front line
By Melissa Campeau
|Canadian Safety Reporter

On April 20, 2010, an explosion on BP’s Deep Water Horizon oil rig left 11 workers dead and 17 injured. A few months later, the company ousted its CEO, Tony Hayward. 

“There’s a belief out there that CEOs drive safety in organizations,” says Sean Tucker, an associate professor in human resource management at the University of Regina. “Tony Hayward, for example, was certainly portrayed as someone responsible for what happened on Deep Water Horizon, at the top of that organization.”

But how much influence do CEOs really have when it comes to workplace safety? That’s the question 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, Babatunde Ogunfowora of the University of Calgary, and Dayle Ehr of the University of Regina.

“Our research is the first to gather hard data to test if and how CEOs influence injuries among front-line workers,” says Tucker. 

The research, funded by the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board, is 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. 

The researchers tested the commonly held “leader-centric” viewpoint, where the leader at the top is assumed to directly influence frontline employee injuries. 

“As we started to collect the data we began to see some pretty interesting things pop up,” says Phil Germain, vice-president, prevention and employer services with the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board. “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. 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.”

Holding leaders accountable

Study data underscored the importance of shared responsibility.

“When you look at the evolution of research that Sean (Tucker) did, there was a strong correlation between senior leadership being held accountable for health and safety — if it was part of their evaluation process, for example — and a trickle-down effect,” says Germain.  

According to the study results, this behaviour begins to set the tone for a safer workplace.

“We found CEOs play a critical role in developing a climate of organizational safety, but again, the role of the CEO is indirect. On a day-to-day basis, CEOs have the most direct safety-related influence on their direct reports,” says Tucker. 

That’s important, says Tucker, because “in turn, these top managers then role model pro-safety values and behaviours to lower-level managers and supervisors.” He adds, “What we found, in our sample, is that this in turn cascades down to the front lines. Our data shows that this process works to create an overall safety climate in an organization that reduces injuries on the front lines.”

Walking the walk

The other key learning is around the importance of visibility, says Germain.

“Having conversations about safety and holding the next layer down accountable — both of those things are important,” says Germain, “But are you sometimes going right down to the floor and observing how people are working? If you see anyone not working safely for any reason, then that’s a symptom that the trickle-down process is not working.”

Leaders can then start to ask questions about safety, he adds.

“That has typically not happened. Senior leaders may go down and they may engage people but the follow up is important. They may say things like, ‘I’ve noted that person over there wasn’t wearing their hard hat, that person wasn’t wearing fall protection, I didn’t see any safety meeting minutes posted in this area," he says. “You have to be in the work environment to know how people are working to be able to ask questions to cause that trickle-down effect.” 

The same is true of reviewing the results of audits, says Germain.

“When audits are done, do senior leaders review the results of the audits, and share what those results mean with front-line managers and workers?”

He adds, “These are the kinds of very specific things organizations can do that create that environment that makes everyone from top to bottom realize this is an important issue for this company.”

Giving safety top billing

“By far the most important takeaway of this research is the importance of the conversations CEOs have with their senior leadership team,” says Tucker. “These conversations really matter in the sense that they demonstrate to senior managers the priority that the CEO places on safety vis-à-vis other priorities such as production, service, profit, and so on.”

Actions, says Tucker, must support those conversations.

“CEOs can’t expect positive safety performance in their organization when their words and actions related to safety are inconsistent.” He adds, “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.”

CEOs also have to genuinely support safety, says Tucker.

"They can do this by providing the equipment workers need to do their jobs safely, by giving safety personnel the power they need to do their job, by holding senior managers accountable for improving safety in their departments and considering safety behaviour when promoting managers to the senior levels in the organization."

Training beyond the front line

“The final practical implication of the research is that much of the focus in training has been on front-line workers, with supervisors next in line in terms of prevalence,” says Tucker.

Training workers who are higher up the organizational chain, he notes, is important.

“We know from research that supervisors have a great deal of influence on employee safety behaviours and injury experience.”

Tucker sees a need for more training opportunities for CEOs’ senior leaders.

“We’d like to be developing interventions to educate and support CEOs in their commitment to safety and provide them with supports in terms of how they hold their senior management teams accountable for safety, the types of questions they should be asking and how they should be measuring safety and prioritizing those supports."

Survey conversations prompt change

For many of the organizations involved in the research, considering the survey questions and reviewing the results has been the beginning of positive change, says Germain.

“When we surveyed, many organizations weren’t holding their senior leadership accountable for health and safety,” he says. “The research caused people to reflect and consider where they could improve. They could see how they compared to their peers and they could start questioning themselves and considering how to improve.”

What the researchers hope for, says Germain, is that the study will prompt some conversation and reflection, starting at the top.

“I think it’s important for CEOs to know how vital they are to safety performance in their organizations,” says Tucker. “They need to understand the impact of their words and how their actions can reinforce those messages — sometimes that’s overlooked, but it’s a necessary step to a safer workplace.”

Melissa Campeau is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Canadian Safety Reporter, a sister publication of COS. 

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