Safety climate

Safety climate

Safety climate is a term commonly used to describe the sum of employees’ perceptions regarding overall safety within their organization. Much debate still continues over the definition and application of safety climate as the term is still used interchangeable with safety culture. This article will discuss various aspects of safety climate including its origin, various definitions, empirical development, common measurement methods and its validity and predictive value.


As part of managing health and safety, organizations should strive to create a culture that shares a common goal towards safety (Cooper 2001). Clarke (2003) notes that the UK Health and Safety Commission recommends that companies develop a “positive safety culture” in order to prevent workplace accidents. A “good” or “positive” safety culture should therefore reflect a shared understanding amongst employees that ‘safety is the number one priority’. In order to develop a positive safety culture, it is important to be aware of the current state of an organization’s health and safety performance in order to properly address the organizations’ health and safety issues (Clarke, 1999). Traditionally, ‘lagging indicators’ are used to identify trends in accidents that are occurring within the workplace. Lagging indicators may include the number of lost time injuries, time and place of accident, type of injury, etc. However, in recent years there has been increasing evidence to suggest that more attention should be focussed on ‘leading indicators’, measures that precede or predict safety outcomes and indicate the impact of human, organizational and managerial factors on safety performance. It is no longer sufficient to be collecting information on injuries or failures that have occurred in the workplace; there needs to be a proactive approach to safety which requires reliable ‘leading indicators’ that can provide information before risks materialise into accidents.

According to Cooper (2000) there are three components of safety culture that should be in focus. These components of safety culture can be separated into: psychological, situational and behavioural aspects (Gadd S and Collins A.M. 2002). The situational aspects can be observed through the organization’s management systems, policies, working procedures, communication flow, etc. and should be measured by audits of safety management systems. Behavioral aspects relate to how people act in the workplace and can be measured through self-reported measures, outcome measures and peer observations. The psychological component relates to people’s norms, values, attitudes and perceptions of safety in the workplace. The psychological components are commonly measured in the form of a safety climate survey. Safety climate tools are designed to measure the people’s norms, values, attitudes and perceptions of safety within the workplace (Gadd, S and Collins A.M. 2002). They often consist of a number of various safety climate measures (e.g. management commitment), thought to be important in developing a positive safety culture. Results are then correlated against a performance measure to determine the predictive validity of the survey.

Through identifying an organization’s safety climate or safety culture within a workplace, managers gain an opportunity to identify the state of safety within that workplace without having to wait for the system to fail. Over the past 30 years a number inquiries into the causes of major disasters have identified safety culture as having a direct impact on the outcome of the disaster (Gadd S. and Collins A.M. 2002). Lord Cullen stated during the Piper Alpha inquiry that, “it is essential to create a corporate atmosphere or culture in which safety is understood to be and is accepted as, the number one priority” (Cullen, 1990, p.300). Such incidents as the Challenger space shuttle disaster, Chernobyl and Bhopal are examples of how an organization’s safety culture has had a direct impact on safety performance. Along with other catastrophic events like Piper Alpha and Dryden, they highlight the importance of, and need for active monitoring and leading indicators in order to avoid such tragic outcomes.

Currently there is a lack of tools that are able to accurately measure the psychological component of an organization’s safety culture, but not for lack of trying. For nearly three decades, many attempts have been made to identify and establish an effective measure of safety climate. Since Zohar’s (1980) study of safety climate in the Israeli manufacturing sector, there has been growing empirical research into the concept of safety climate and its ability to measure the state of safety in the workplace (Yule, 2003). However, although there has been an increase in the amount of empirical research, the development of theory on safety climate has not been through the same level of progression, where little consensus has been reached on various key aspects of the concept (Guldenmund, 2000; Yule, 2003). Guldenmund (2000) highlights that the concept is still yet to progress pass the developmental stage, and affirms that “although the importance of the safety climate concept is stressed by most authors, very few have attempted to support their claim by reporting an indication of its construct validity or predictive value”. Yule (2003) echoes these concerns stating that “although there is general consensus amongst researchers, regulatory bodies and the industry that safety climate is a worthwhile concept for research and application, there is still little consensus over important issues”.

Within the literature there is a lack of consistency amongst researchers in the definition of key terms such as safety climate and safety culture. Despite the research over the past 30 years, there is still confusion over some key concepts. Glendon A.I., McKenna E.F. and Clarke S.G. (2006) state “there is little agreement on its definition, and even less on ways of improving it, despite widespread recognition that a positive safety culture is a prerequisite for successfully managing safety risks” (p. 363). Similar arguments can be said for safety climate as Guldenmund (2000) has highlighted that the term safety climate is often used interchangeably with safety culture. He states that these concepts are “still ill-defined” and goes on to say that there is an unclear relationship between the two concepts of safety climate and safety culture.

Other concerns have been raised over the lack of consistency over what are considered to be appropriate measures of safety climate. In a safety climate survey the number and variety of safety climate measures can range anywhere from two to 19 measures in a single survey. Further more there is a lack of evidence that demonstrates that measures of safety climate are indicative of the state of safety in the workplace. (Flin et al. 2000; Guldenmund F.W. 2000; Williamson et al. 1997)

Although there is some confusion in the literature around the concept of safety climate and safety culture, for the purpose of this article the term safety climate will be applied distinctly from safety culture although the concepts will remain interrelated. As such, safety climate will refer to workers’ perceptions of how safety is managed in the workplace and the likelihood that those perceptions will contribute to a workplace accident, while safety culture will refer to “the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and style and proficiency of, an organizations health and safety management” (HSC, 1993a, p. 23).

Organizational Climate and Organizational Culture

In order to understand safety climate and safety culture, it is appropriate to examine the usage and meaning of organisational culture and climate. Similar to safety climate and safety culture organizational climate and organizational culture have two very distinct origins. Schein (1988) states “In the 1950's and 60's, the field of organizational psychology began to differentiate itself out of industrial psychology” (p. 2). This move allowed the field of organizational psychology to draw influences and concept ideas from sociology (the study of social problems) and anthropology (the comparative study of human societies and cultures and their development) (Schein 1988). Organizational Culture then gained significant attention during the 1980’s in organizational psychology, organizational behaviour and management literature. On the other hand, Yule (2003) believes that organizational climate originated out of social and behavioural psychology in the 1950’s and 1960’s (Yule, 2003).

The concept as organisational culture was attractive as it enabled managers to gain a birds-eye perspective of the company, yet Guldenmund (2000) believes the concepts could possibly become meaningless as the concepts are so ‘global and abstract’ (p. 216). The common traits shared between definitions of organizational culture, safety culture and safety climate often includes the use of ‘shared values’ (what is important), ‘beliefs’ (how things work), and ‘behavioural norms’ (the way we do things around here). There are a number of varying definitions of organizational climate and culture that share similar characteristics and traits found in definitions of safety climate and culture. For example, Pettegrew (1979) defines organizational culture as ‘symbols, languages, ideologies, rituals, and myths’. In addition Schein (1985) defines organizational culture as what the employees perceive and how this perception creates a pattern of beliefs, values, and expectations. Schein (1985) goes on to describe organizational culture as ‘a pattern of basic assumptions – invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with the problems of external adaptation and internal integration – that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive things’ (p. 5). Uttal (1983) defines organizational culture as ‘Shared values and beliefs that interact with an organization’s structures and control systems to produce behavioural norms’ (p. 67).

Society is composed of people and their various cultures. Anthropologists propose that a nation’s culture is learned, shared, and defines boundaries of different groups and various aspects of national culture (i.e. religion, legislation, language and education). Australia is a multi-cultural nation with a number of varying cultures within the community (i.e. Chinese, Greek, Italian, etc.). The values, beliefs, and norms do not simply appear within the community, they evolve and are influenced by politics, religion, language and other cultural aspects (Ivancevich et al. 2005). The same could be said if an employee was moved from one organization to another. The employee would have to learn new values, new ways of processing information, new behavioural norms, etc.

There are a number of difficulties in trying to identify and change the culture of an organization. There is a high degree of difficulty in achieving cultural change because you have to change the underlying beliefs and values that are shared by a group. These beliefs and values cannot just be created; culture is developed over a period of time and depends on a number of external factors (as discussed above). It is not impossible to implement cultural change, but the process takes time, as it requires behavioural norms to be changed which will eventually influence beliefs and values of the workplace. It is possible to train individuals on basic components of a culture, but in order for an individual to become part of that culture, they must interact, observe and socialise with the other employees (Yule, 2003).

This raises the question of how a researcher is able to measure the culture of a workplace without being a member of that workplace. If indeed culture involves aspects that are ‘unwritten’ or ‘unspoken’, how are they able to be analysed and measured by people outside of the culture? Yule (2003) questions ‘if only those embroiled in a particular culture can understand it, how are they able to communicate it?’

Culture vs. Climate

Although there seem to be some similarities in the definitions of safety culture and safety climate, safety culture is generally seen to exist at a deeper level than safety climate (Neal and Griffin 2002; Seo et al., 2004; Schein 1992). Guldenmund (2000) suggests that safety climate refers to the attitudes towards safety within an organization while safety culture is concerned with the underlying beliefs and prevailing values of the work group. Glendon, Clarke and McKenna (2006) describe safety culture as “the fundamental underlying beliefs and values of a group of people in relation to risk and safety” (p. 363). A common explanation describes culture as simply as “the way we do things around here” (CBI, 1990).

Climate is generally considered to be “the manifestation of safety culture in the behavior and expressed attitude of employees” (Mearns et. al 2003). In other words, safety climate is the expressed attitudes towards safety within an organization; it identifies surface features of that organization’s safety culture (Flin et al. 2000). Although an organization has the same policies and procedures, individuals and workgroups may interpret policies and procedures differently (Cox and Cheyne 2000; Waring 1992;). It is suggested that this occurs because different workgroups are exposed to varying levels of risk and form their own customs and practices (Cooper 1998). In turn this will influence how safety is perceived, the way safety is managed and the emphasis placed on compliance (Cooper, 1998).

The terms safety climate and safety culture are poorly established and are often used interchangeably (Guldenmund 2000). To add to the problem, another related term, safety management has emerged but has failed to be distinguished from safety climate/culture (Mearns et al. 2003, Gadd and Collins 2002). Hoffmann et al., (1995) stated that individual attitudes and behaviors (safety climate) of an organization are determined by elements of the safety management system and practices. Mearns et al., (2003) interpreted this to mean the attitudes and behaviors of management towards safety make their way down through the organization to the workforce.

As such, there are some shared aspects in how the two concepts of safety climate and safety culture relate to one another (Guldenmund 2003; Yule 2003). Similarities exist in that both concepts refer to ‘shared aspects’. Where the two concepts differ is that safety culture is seen to exist as the underlying beliefs, values and attitudes towards work and the organization in general, while safety climate is considered to be safety culture in action (Cox and Flin, 1998), and the daily perceptions of safety management (Yule, 2003). There is a tendency to view safety climate as a more accurate indicator of safety culture within the workplace, with safety management practice perceived as an indication of the safety culture within senior management. Though it is expected that if an organization has good safety management practices, there will be a better safety climate within the workforce.

In regards to the inconsistency between safety culture and safety climate, Glendon, Clarke and McKenna (2006) highlighted that a number of researchers in the field believe that a distinction remains between the two concepts. Those authors included Glick (1985), Moran and Volkwein (1992), Schein (1992), Cox and Flin (1998), Hale and Hovden (1998), Mearns and Flin (1999), Glendon and Stanton (2000), Guldenmund (2000), Hale (2000), Harvey et al. (2002), Seo et al. (2004), and Hopkins (2004). Rousseau (1988) believes that there should be a distinction between the two concepts as safety climate is more specific than safety culture. She argues that safety climate refers to people’s perceptions about their everyday experiences, whilst safety culture refers to the established social group norms (Cited in Cooper, 1998 p. 23).

Defining Safety Climate

Generally the concept of safety climate is used to describe the general perceptions of, and attitudes towards how safety is managed in the workplace. As a concept, safety climate is seen to show the surface features of safety culture (Guldenmund 2000; Flin et al., 2000) and although the safety climate of an organization may change on a daily basis, the underlying beliefs, values and behavioural norms will remain largely unchanged. Cooper (1998) highlights that the dynamic nature of safety climate, which has the ability to change on a daily basis, means there is a great need for reliable tools that can measure the safety climate of an organization. Consequently these tools (psychometric measures) can be utilized in determining the effectiveness of safety programs in the workplace, and how to improve future programs. Williamson (1997) believes that the potential impact on employees’ attitudes and perceptions must be taken into account when implementing safety programs. Cox and Cox (1991) propose that employee attitudes can be influenced by many features of the working environment, which further highlights its importance as a measure of safety climate/culture. Mearns et al., (2003) point out that the concept of safety climate has provided a new way to measure safety culture and has led to a dramatic increase in the number of surveys that claim to measure safety climate.

The concept of safety climate emphasises the importance of how organizations manage health and safety in the workplace, as it will have a direct impact on the perceptions of employees and ultimately their behaviour (Cooper, 1998). It is important that managers consider that any changes made to the operations of a business, will have an impact on workers perceptions. As Zohar (1980) points out ‘these perceptions have a psychological utility in serving as a frame of reference for guiding appropriate and adaptive task behaviour’ (p. 96). As the workers environment changes around them, they adapt their perceptions and ultimately their behaviours. As such, the safety-related behaviors of workers (i.e. wearing PPE, following safety procedures) are influenced by the their perceptions and attitudes towards safety (Cooper 1998). In spite of any confusion over definitions, there is a general consensus amongst researchers on the impact that climate may have on processes such as, communication, decision-making, problem solving, conflict resolution, attitudes, motivation, etc. and therefore on result variables such as satisfaction or performance.

Zohar (1980) considered the term safety climate in context to literature on organizational climate. Zohar (1980) believed that any one organization might have a number of different climates, for example, an organization may have a safety climate, motivation climate, creativity climate, etc. He believed the term organizational climate should be supplemented with an appropriate adjective to describe the type of climate being measured. The term climate should be applied to a specific area of research, rather than an organizational measure. Therefore safety climate was developed and defined as ‘a summary of molar perceptions that employees share about their work environments’ (p. 96). He goes on to explain that “based on a variety of cues present in their work environment, employees develop coherent sets of perceptions and expectations regarding behaviour-outcome contingencies and behave accordingly”. In other words employees learn how to behave according to information that is being communicated to them. If an employee knows that it is common practice not to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) on the construction site, they will be unlikely to wear PPE on site.

More recent definitions of safety climate share similar descriptions, for example, Niskanen (1994) describes safety climate as “a set of attributes that can be perceived about particular work organizations and which may be induced by the policies and practices that organizations impose on their workers.” (p. 241). Furthermore, Cabrera, Isla and Vilela (1997) identify safety climate as ‘shared perceptions of organizational members about their work environment and, more precisely, about their organizational safety policies’. Dedobbeleer and Bleland (1991) adopt a similar definition to Zohar (1980) and Brown and Holmes (1986) and define safety climate as ‘molar perceptions people have of their work settings’ (p. 97).

Empirical Development of Safety Climate

Measuring safety climate is still relatively new when compared with the concepts of social and work climate (Yule, 2003). Previous to Zohar’s (1980) study of the Israeli manufacturing sector, the assessment of an organizations culture had never been specifically focused on assessing the attitudes of employees in relation to safety. Since then, there have been a number of studies and research teams that have aimed at developing a reliable measure of safety climate. As the concept has received more recognition and importance, there has been a growing increase in the number of safety climate measures; however, most of the focus has been on “refining question sets in order to improve face-validity” (Yule, 2003). Yule (2003) highlights that instead of focusing on the construct or predictive value of surveys, some researchers have been getting carried away with “factor analyses and internal consistency checks”. He goes on to highlight that the research field needs to address issues of ‘constructive and predictive validity’ in order to progress the level of research past its developmental stages.

As the research field has grown, researchers have adopted a variety of methods in order to develop a quantitative measure of safety climate. There are various dimensions of research that change from study to study. Flin et al., (2000) point out that the structure of safety climate studies vary in terms of statistical analysis, size, composition of workers and industry. Gadd and Collins (2002) state that this creates a number of difficulties when trying to compare measures because of such methodological differences, but also because of varying cultures and languages.

Looking at a number of previous studies, there are varying methods that have been utilized when gathering information regarding the safety-related perceptions and attitudes of employees. For example, some researchers use qualitative methods, such as focus groups and interviews, to gather information that might identify important areas (relating to safety) that require further attention. Lee (1998) used focus groups in combination with a literature review in order to establish a questionnaire for a nuclear reprocessing plant. The focus groups identified a range of specific areas that should be included in the questionnaire (Lee and Harrison, 2000).

Aside form focus groups a number of other studies have utilized interviews with management and employees to assist with the development of a questionnaire. Ostrom et al., (1993) conducted interviews with 86 employees (including managers, professionals, office workers and laborers). Each of the employees was asked three questions. The questions were designed to elicit future and current norms, and get employees to ‘consider and compare the present with the desired future’ (p. 165). Additionally Ostrom et al., (1993) posed a question to a group of managers, where they were required to write down their own personal safety philosophy, what they believe about safety and what they would like each of their employees to understand (p. 165).

Although a large amount of research has focused on what safety measures should be included in the make-up of a questionnaire, there is still confusion over the number and type of safety climate measures that should be included. A number of reviews of safety climate literature (see Guldenmund 2000; Flin et al., 2000) have identified that the number of measures used in a survey may range anywhere from 2 to 19 different measures. There is however a number of safety climate measures that are commonly used, for example, management commitment, supervisor competence, priority of safety over production, and time pressure (Flin et al., 2000). Furthermore a number of studies have revealed some safety climate measures that have emerged as predictors of unsafe behavior and accidents in numerous structural models.


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ee also

*For the U.S. government agency, see Occupational Safety and Health Administration."
*For the European Agency, see European Agency for Safety and Health at Work."
*Safety standards

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