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  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Grocutt

"The Next Best Safety Dollar": Investing in HR Practices for Workplace Safety

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

There are many hurdles when it comes to improving workplace safety, including limited resources and competing priorities. What common practices can yield beneficial outcomes for safety?

Steve Granger (University of Calgary), Dr. Nick Turner (University of Calgary), and myself, tackle this issue in our paper, “The Next Best Safety Dollar: Using Evidence to Decide How to Invest in Workplace Safety”, published in Organizational Dynamics.

We reviewed the research evidence on workplace safety to develop this paper. Our goal is to guide managers through the questions to consider, and the benefits of different human resource (HR) practices in regards to workplace safety outcomes.

First, it is important to consider what drives workplace safety.

The drivers of workplace safety consist of both a leadership factor and an employee factor:

(1) Management commitment to safety: Leaders (i.e., managers and supervisors) show their commitment to safety symbolically and substantively.

  • Symbolically by “talking the talk": Communicating the importance of safety verbally or through signs posted in the workplace.

  • Substantively by “walking the walk”: Behaving in ways that signal the importance of safety in the workplace. For example, ensuring employees are provided the proper equipment and personal protective gear to do their job.

(2) Employee situational awareness: Employees' attention and focus which is developed through training and interacting with fellow employees. When employees engage in situational awareness, this contributes to further situational awareness.

Second, it is essential to know how to develop or enhance management commitment to safety and employee situational awareness.

We focus on six key HR practices, and the HR life cycle, that exist in most organizations: See the figure below for a visual depiction of the life cycle of these six HR practices.

How do each of these six HR practices relate to workplace safety?

(1) Job Design:

  • Providing employees with job resources, such as autonomy.

  • Reducing job demands, such as long work hours.

  • Providing employees with job resources and decreasing job demands allows them to focus on the task at hand thereby enhancing employee situational awareness.

(2) Recruitment & Selection:

  • Research on personality and workplace safety provides insight on personality characteristics that are desirable and can be recruited and selected for.

  • Best candidates: Individuals that are cooperative, disciplined and responsible, feel that they have control of their lives and actions, and are unlikely to engage in risky behaviour.

  • Emphasizing a commitment to safety through the company website and advertising can encourage people with similar safety values to self-select by applying and those with dissimilar values to not apply.

(3) Training & Development:

  • Signals management commitment to safety, and enhances employee situational awareness.

  • Training can improve safety, but the importance of training is evident in the detrimental consequences of not having training or having insufficient training.

  • Safety training is best when it is comprehensive, immersive, and engaging – which is especially true for hazardous jobs.

  • Including aspects that capture attention and elicit an emotional reaction help to ensure the safety training is effective.

  • Making safety training social can help to foster connections among employees which can be particularly beneficial for new employees to learn from more experienced employees.

(4) Performance Management & Appraisal:

  • Including safety in performance appraisals indicates that safety is valued and rewarded.

  • It is beneficial to involve employees in the process of creating lists of safe and unsafe work behaviours to aid in evaluating safety performance. This signals management commitment to safety, and contributes to employee situational awareness by explicitly outlining what behaviours are safe and unsafe for the job.

(5) Compensation & Benefits:

  • This can be through monetary rewards or other forms of rewards.

  • Rewarding and incentivizing safe behaviours signals management commitment to safety, and can improve employees’ situational awareness.

  • Rewards and incentives should be based on safe behaviours, knowledge, and/or skills, and not safety outcomes (e.g., injuries). If rewards and incentives are based on safety outcomes, it can lead to underreporting.

(6) Employee Relations & Communication:

  • Open two-way communication between employer and employees. For example, having employee safety committees can be effective way to enable this communication.

  • Encouraging open communication signals management commitment to safety.

  • Employees are encouraged to be situationally aware by providing channels for them to voice safety concerns and hazards.

Third, it is unlikely that all six HR practices can be invested in simultaneously. As such, we suggest considering the following:

Feasibility and suitability are essential. That is, what can be done in the organization, and what should be done in the organization, respectively. It is not a 'one size fits all' approach. Each organization will have different needs and different constraints. We propose three questions to consider when deciding on a practice to implement:

One, what is possible for the organization to change?

Two, what can be sustained in the long-term?

Three, what will yield immediate improvements?

Based on these three questions we rank the six HR practices in their potential to improve workplace safety:

(1) Performance management & appraisal

(2) Training & development

(3) Job design

(4) Employee relations & communication

(5) Recruitment & selection

(6) Compensation and benefits

Finally, it is helpful to evaluate the effectiveness of any practice implemented to improve workplace safety.

Most often, a new practice gets implemented throughout a whole organization. However, this does not allow for an organization to determine the effectiveness of the practice for their workforce. It is recommended that, if possible, an implementation design allowing for an evaluation of effectiveness is used before implementing the practice organization-wide.

The best way to evaluate effectiveness of a practice is to do a randomized controlled trial. This involves randomly assigning one group to undergo the change. Another group, also randomly assigned, does not undergo the change. This allows for a comparison to be made between the two groups to determine if the new practice truly does produce a change in safety performance. Unfortunately, organizations are typically unable to randomize the implementation of new practices.

An alternative is to assign one group to implement the practice and one group to remain unchanged. These two groups are then compared to determine if the practice is effective. The drawback of this design is that, if there is a difference and the group with the new practice shows better safety performance, it is not possible to know for sure that it is the newly implemented practice driving the improvement or some other factor.

Comparing two groups is only one aspect of evaluation though. Organizations must have data on measurable safety metrics. Safety performance should be measured before and after implementing any new practice. Measuring safety performance should be done in the same way before and after to ensure any changes in safety performance are not due to changes in measurement.

Overall, research shows that common HR practices have beneficial impacts on workplace safety performance. When deciding on implementing a new practice, or enhancing an existing practice, it is important to consider what is most feasible and suitable to the organization in light of limited resources and competing priorities.


Thank you to Steve Granger and Nick Turner for comments on this post.

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