Back to Basics, Safety Culture and Behavioral Safety

Back to Basics: Leadership Tips to Improve Safety Climate

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine tips for EHS leaders to help improve their safety climates.

Safety culture and climate have become huge topics of discussion among EHS professionals, and it is becoming increasingly important for leaders to understand their roles in creating safety cultures and climates at their workplaces. Recently, Chris Ross, CSP, CPTD, an implementation consultant at SafeStart, spoke in a webinar during EHS Daily Advisor’s Leadership Week about the six key factors of a safety climate, and how leaders can take charge in building a better safety climate.


There are several challenges that EHS leaders face, according to Ross. These include both individual factors that stem from how people feel their work affects how they act, and organizational factors, which are defined by company systems and how things are done in that organization.

The human elements that can interfere with a better safety climate can be both physical and psychological, said Ross. Physical factors include fatigue, a faster-than-usual work pace, illness, decision fatigue, and attention span limitations. Psychological factors include rushing, frustration, distractions, overconfidence, uncertainty, assumptions, bias, complacency, or boredom. Managers should be able to tell when their workers are beginning to experience these symptoms, and they should be able to intervene and help them before workers stop paying attention, develop bad habits, or start working on auto pilot. Ross recommended engaging with reliability improvement techniques, which build self-awareness, positive habits, and better communication and performance.

The organizational issues that get in the way of an improved safety climate include conflicting priorities, such as production over safety, ineffective reporting systems, a climate of blame, and a lack of senior leadership participation. These issues affect can team effectiveness, employee engagement, expectations and consequences, feedback, communication, and ultimately, the entire organizational culture. Ross said that to combat these issues and improve outcome reliability, companies should gather data, assess their current outcomes, select priorities, and identify their next steps.

Six safety climate factors

There are six key factors that leaders should focus on if they are to make positive changes to their safety climates, according to Ross. He defined climate as the pulse of what is important currently, and emphasized that changing the climate comes down to enhancing communication between leaders and their employees.

The first factor is communicating positively and avoiding blame. Often, leaders will respond badly to reports, near misses, and injuries, and immediately resort to blaming the individuals involved. Instead, leaders should practice being less reactive by taking a deep breath and considering what to say, said Ross. They should encourage communication, and talk to employees when things go right as well as when things go wrong. They should seek problem-solving solutions and give positive feedback to employees, because it will increase their willingness to engage in safety practices and reassure them that they are doing well.

The next step is identifying hazards and evaluating risks in real time. Leaders should reassess how often they go out and actually look for hazards and unsafe behaviors, and whether or not they look for the internal factors that may be affecting their workers as well. Supervisors need to go out and observe tasks, putting themselves in their worker shoes, and try to understand what they are going through to determine the best way to help them, said Ross. They should also incorporate the hierarchy of controls when observing and evaluating their workers’ tasks and processes. The hierarchy of controls includes several steps:

  • Elimination: physically removing the hazard.
  • Substitution: replacing the hazard.
  • Engineering controls: isolating workers from the hazard.
  • Administrative controls: changing the way people work, through training and work scheduling.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE): protecting workers with PPE, as a last resort after making the previously listed adjustments.  

Leaders should then leverage system, data, and reporting, first considering how effectively they use the existing reporting systems to improve safety and performance conditions. They should consider what their business’s near-miss reporting structure looks like, and if there are any systems or processes that encourage and record worker input. Ross recommended openly seeking more reports, especially near misses, following up and acting on issues, thanking the employees for making the reports, not assigning blame, and removing any barriers to reporting. He also suggested a dual path near-miss reporting system, which involves just talking with employees about the low stakes near misses and at-risk behaviors, and then actually reporting the more serious near misses that could have led to fatality or serious injury.

The fourth factor is engaging workers with open communication. This goes beyond having a dialogue with employees, and extends to understanding how much employees enjoy their work, believe in it, and feel valued for doing it, according to Ross. Leaders must be mindful of factors that can inhibit good communication, avoid only talking about safety when there are incidents, and ask for employee input. It is also crucial to look for workers who are following proper safety procedures and give them positive reinforcement.

Next, it is paramount that leaders demonstrate a personal commitment to the safety of others. Safety leaders should be walking the walk, and actually do what they promise. Ross suggested planning formal and informal opportunities for “safety talks” and “safety walks,” using open-ended questions to drive conversation, and celebrating employee successes.

Finally, leaders must learn to lead by example. They should be ready to fully participate in safety systems and procedures, and hold themselves accountable to their own standards. Major benefits can occur when supervisors understand human and organizational factors and how to help them, and then, said Ross, the climate can be changed one conversation at a time.

To view the full webinar, click here, and for more content from Leadership Week, click here.