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  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Grocutt

"Safety in the C-Suite": The Role of CEOs in Workplace Safety

Updated: Nov 7, 2022


Chief executive officers (CEOs) are undoubtedly important to an organization. At the same time, they typically remain removed, or disconnected, from day-to-day operations of employees. This begs the question: What impact do CEOs have on the safety climate of their organization, and the safety outcomes of employees?


Dr. Sean Tucker at the University of Regina, and colleagues Dr. Babatunde Ogunfowora (University of Calgary) and Dayle Ehr (University of Regina), explored this topic in their paper, "Safety in the c-suite: How chief executive officers influence organizational safety climate and employee injuries", which was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.


They examined how CEOs set the stage for safety climate throughout an organization, and theorized CEOs affect safety climate in a "trickle down" manner:

  1. CEOs initially model the priorities set forth for the company through their actions and decisions.

  2. Top management teams (TMTs) then learn from CEOs' actions and decisions, and subsequently act as role models for frontline supervisors.

  3. In turn, frontline supervisors learn from TMTs' actions and decisions, and go on to model these same safety priorities for the employees.

Basically, each group observes priorities of the higher level group, and then enact similar behaviours to signal priorities for the next lower level group.


The figure below illustrates this.


The whole process starts with the CEO publicly communicating the importance of safety. This vividly shows the importance of safety to the CEO, and creates a unique safety climate among the TMT; through their collective actions, an organizational safety climate is established.


Supervisors are essential for executing the safety policies, practices, and procedures set forth by top management, and they learn what is most highly valued in the organization from watching the TMT in the organization. Their role is to put the organizations' policies and procedures into practice in their daily interactions with workers. Finally, employees perceive supervisors enactment of these practices as supervisory support for safety which ultimately relates to the frequency of employee injuries.


*Figure adapted from Tucker et al. (2016)


What is the key takeaway message? What does this mean for workplace safety?


 


The study details:


Tucker and colleagues studied 54 organizations in Canada to understand how safety climate trickles down from CEOs to impact workplace safety outcomes. The organizations represented a wide range of industries, such as public sector organizations (e.g., health care), manufacturing, service sector, commodity and wholesale, building construction among others.


At the CEO level:

CEOs of these organizations made a public pledge to improve workplace safety in their organization.

At the TMT level:

292 TMT members completed surveys regarding the safety climate set forth by the CEO.

At the supervisor level:

1,398 supervisors completed surveys regarding the safety climate set forth by top management (i.e., the TMT).

At the employee level:

2,714 employees completed surveys regarding their perceptions of their supervisor's support for safety, and the work-related injuries they sustained over the past 3 months.




The findings:


Having pledged to improve safety, CEOs created a perception of safety climate among TMTs. That is, a safety climate developed among TMT members, which emphasized perceptions of the priority placed on safety by the CEO.


As a result, TMT members engaged in behaviours that signalled to supervisors an importance placed on safety. Thus, frontline supervisors could easily understand what the priorities of the organization, and a safety climate at the organization level.


In turn, frontline supervisors behaved accordingly, and enacted safe work practices. Frontline employees picked up on this as supervisory support for safety, and they developed a safety climate within their groups.


At the individual level, employees' perceptions of the extent to which their supervisors support safety affected the number of injuries: The more their supervisors support safety, the fewer injuries they experienced.


And it all started in the C-suite!


Key Takeaways: What does this mean for workplace safety?


These findings suggest that CEOs play an important role in setting the tone for safety in their organization. However, the findings also show that the responsibility is not solely on the CEO to set the tone for safety. Instead, it is a collective effort.


CEOs do impact workplace safety; however, it is indirect, and through a "trickle down" effect, demonstrating that their commitment to safety establishes the safety climate through each organizational level. Leaders throughout the organization are essential for promoting safety and engaging in safety practices.


Moral of the story: All groups within an organization need to be on board with promoting safety and exhibiting safety behaviours to experience better safety outcomes. That being said, clearly CEOs kick-start the whole process through a "trickle down" effect.


It is not just CEOs, it is not just executives or top management, it is not just supervisors, and it is not just employees. Workplace safety is a collective effort of all of these groups within an organization.




Notes:

[1] Safety climate is defined as the policies, practices, and procedures that prioritize safety in the workplace (Zohar, 1980, 2010).

[2] Thank you to Julian Barling for comments on this summary.

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