We designed MySafetySign's 2015 Health and Safety Industry Survey to find out what encourages health and safety procedure adoption, and to get a better sense of overall workplace safety culture. This year, an expert weighed in on the results. Jim Loud has been active in the safety industry for more than 40 years, including nine years as safety director for a nuclear power facility. Here are his insights.
It was encouraging to see some good news from the nearly 500 safety professionals who responded to MySafetySign's 2015 Health and Safety Industry Survey. Notably, 90% of respondents indicated that their senior management considered safety important to their organizations.
Most safety professionals are convinced that their management is both serious and committed to safety, and that managers effectively demonstrate this commitment in the workplace. Safety professionals should therefore have little trouble getting buy-in for genuine safety improvement strategies — assuming they make the case for them.
It was also encouraging to see that the top three factors considered by safety professionals as key to motivating health and safety practices were management commitment, safety culture, and workforce participation. These factors are key elements of most safety management systems being adopted today.
It is more than a little troubling that only 14% of respondents indicated that they believed they had a need for training in "understanding systems." This seems especially problematic when you consider that many managers apparently do not agree. In fact, recent studies show the safety profession's ability to provide strategic safety management guidance "continues to fall short of business leader expectations." If this opinion is accurate, and management is as committed and serious about safety as both safety professionals and managers seem to believe, then perhaps the most serious barrier to safety performance isn't worker attitudes but rather the lack of effective system improvement advice coming from the safety profession.
Survey responses highlighting younger workers and emerging technologies indicate that most safety professionals recognize that U.S. workplaces are more dynamic and complex than ever before. New challenges, such as the growing trend in many U.S. industries toward employing more temporary, part-time and contract workers, will persist. Only 43% of survey respondents expressed their belief that less than full-time employees took safety seriously, as opposed to 84% for "permanent" workers. Meeting this challenge will require new strategies, such as more targeted training, assignment of mentors, probationary periods and incorporating temporary workers and contractors into existing workplace teams.
The rise of temporary employees is just an indicator of how quickly and profoundly our organizations are changing. If the safety profession is to remain relevant it will need to change and adapt as well. We will find that the tactics we've employed in the past fall increasingly short in our new, dynamic and more diverse work environments. Old safety traditions like command-and-control compliance, and worker behavior modification schemes no longer serve us well, if they ever did.
A sound understanding of management principles and system complexity — not just expertise in hazards and controls — is more essential now than ever. Safety professionals will need to break with tradition and dedicate themselves to lifetime learning that leads to advocacy for change and continuous improvement — not the status quo.
The second annual MySafetySign Health and Safety Industry Survey was designed to examine how health and safety practices are evolving in businesses today. We surveyed 589 health and safety professionals in the U.S. using a self-administered questionnaire via SurveyMonkey, and we used a filtered selection of 459 complete responses to analyze survey results and to develop this report.
The Health and Safety Industry Survey reached a diverse crowd, from safety professionals at companies of fewer than 10 workers, to organizations with workforces topping 500 people, spanning over 20 industries. Manufacturing and construction were most heavily represented. Of the respondents in these industries, 106 in the manufacturing industry and 56 in construction answered supplemental questions specific to their fields. Their insights are also included in this report.
Note that when comparing the responses from safety professionals at "small" and "large" companies, "small" refers to companies with fewer than 100 employees, while "large" refers to companies with 100 or more employees. We have appended a full breakdown of survey respondent demographics at the end of this report.
Worker responsibility vs. management-led safety culture
Respondents to the survey had slightly more confidence in management's commitment to health and safety than that of staff. When asked whether senior management considered safety important, 90% of those surveyed responded in the affirmative, compared to 88% when asked whether staff considered safety important. Slightly more respondents were neutral on whether staff at their workplace viewed health and safety as important (6% vs. just 3% neutral responses regarding senior management).
While these are small differences, the responses to other questions regarding worker responsibility vs. management-led safety culture also seem to support a higher level of confidence in management than in workers.
When asked how senior leadership demonstrated its commitment to health and safety, most survey participants called out a number of management-led directives: "Training and induction" was selected by 60% of respondents (who had the option of selecting more than one practice), "regular staff meetings" by 49% of respondents, and "through formal organizational communications" by 44% of respondents. Only 8% reported that senior management did not demonstrate a commitment to health and safety.
Worker-driven measures of demonstrating dedication to safety were significantly less popular in survey respondents' workplaces: Personal KPIs/objectives/responsibility was the most infrequent method, selected by 19% of respondents.
To assess their role in creating workplace safety culture, the professionals were asked which skills they sought more training in. Responses checked by more than 100 people all reflected a desire to effect change. They were: persuasion and influence (133 respondents), people management (105 respondents), and culture change/creation (104 respondents). In contrast, the option earning the fewest responses was "understanding systems," a fact that Jim Loud found troubling considering recent studies showing that the safety profession has not provided effective enough strategic safety management guidance.
Health and safety barriers and motivators: management remains committed while workers lag behind
The division between workers and senior management becomes more apparent as we examine health and safety practices' primary barriers and motivators in the workplace.
Respondents felt that the biggest barriers to safety stem from staff behavior: 51% cited worker attitudes, 36% agreed that staff do not understand the problems/risks at work, and 33% listed a lack of involvement of workers in the health and safety process.
These responses indicate that many safety professionals view workers less as potential assets than as safety liabilities. According to safety consultant Jim Loud:
“The assumption that safety problems are worker problems rather than management, organizational, systemic, or cultural problems is time honored, but overly simplistic and misguided. The worker-as-barrier perspective could also reflect a largely discredited "blame the worker" approach to safety. The bulk of modern safety thought has come to see unsafe behavior as a symptom of system weaknesses — not a root cause.”
When asked to name the biggest barriers to health and safety, safety professionals from smaller companies selected worker attitudes and staff not understanding the problems or risks at work 11% more often than their counterparts at larger organizations.
Respondents from smaller companies also viewed aspects of management-driven workplace culture as barriers to health and safety at a higher rate than safety professionals from larger organizations: 38% of respondents from small companies viewed organizational resistance to change, lack of safety culture, and limited budget as barriers (compared to 33%, 31%, and 28% of respondents from larger companies, respectively).
When asked to select the primary factors driving health and safety, respondents held similarly conflicted views of workplace safety culture.
The large majority, 60% of survey respondents, selected commitment by top management as a significant driver of health and safety practices, followed by 42% or 194 respondents listing safety culture in the organization. Despite naming worker attitudes as a key barrier to health and safety practices, 32% of respondents selected both "participation of the workforce in safety activities and decision making" and "staff recognize the problems/risks" as key motivators for health and safety practices — that's 150 and 149 respondents, respectively.
Incentives vs. punishment: How to create a better safety culture
While only 14% of respondents considered incentives and/or bonuses a motivating factor for health and safety, they still considered these practices more effective than either punition or a blend of punitive and non-punitive approaches.
Safety professionals at smaller companies showed more support for incentives — 20% listed incentives as a motivating factor, compared to 9% of survey participants at larger companies — and professionals who have been in the industry for more than five years were slightly less confident in the effectiveness of incentives when compared to those who have been in the industry for less than five years.
While just 4% of respondents believed that punitive practices were more effective than either incentive-based methods or a blend of incentives and punitive practices, a plurality of respondents — 41% — agreed that, hypothetically, individual workers should be subject to a portion of OSHA fines if responsible for a violation. This indicates support for at least some punition and confirms the notion that for some safety professionals, workers are more of a burden to safety than a vital component of a thriving safety culture.
That said, questions regarding reporting workplace safety violations pointed to a safety culture that values transparency. A combined 72% of respondents said that accidents either never or rarely go unreported. A majority 47% of respondents had never heard of inspectors being misled about conditions in the workplace, while 34% claimed it was a rare occurrence, and 19% reported it was a common occurrence.
Industry niches: Millennial, temp, and manufacturing and construction workers
The habits of millennials — now eligible to join the workforce — are a popular topic in all industries, and the health and safety professionals surveyed tended to have a low opinion of younger workers. Respondents with more than five years' experience found millennials challenging to work with: 36% reported that younger workers are less concerned with safety, and 28% agreed that they are easily distracted. However, 23% of survey respondents overall — and 25% of respondents with more than five years of industry experience — considered millennials to be better with technology than other workers.
Safety professionals also viewed temporary workers as liabilities to health and safety. Only 43% of respondents thought that temporary workers take health and safety seriously, while 84% of survey participants agreed that permanent workers take health and safety seriously.
Of the supplemental questions targeting specific industries, we received the largest number of responses from professionals in manufacturing and construction. In both of these niches, respondents revealed their strong support for OSHA.
Only 4% of respondents in construction and 6% of respondents in manufacturing rated OSHA's performance in inspections and enforcement as below average. A full 47% of manufacturing safety professionals believed that their workforces were prepared with training and implementation of the new Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), which is set to be finalized in the U.S. by December 1, 2015; 48% of construction safety professionals believed that OSHA's proposed update to silica standards would have a positive impact on health and safety (11% did not, while 41% were unsure).
Conclusion: Looking forward
Overall, the survey found that safety professionals are confident in the ability of management to drive a healthy workplace safety culture. Conversely, safety professionals continue to view staff as a barrier to safety. As the industry adapts to new technologies and a younger workforce, we should reexamine the ways safety is treated in the workplace by asking:
How can management create a more inclusive safety culture?
How can safety professionals begin to view staff as part of the solution, not the problem?
What practices will be most effective for overcoming existing barriers to health and safety initiatives?
We look forward to hearing your thoughts; please reach out to our editor [email protected] with any feedback, or suggestions for further areas for investigation.
Profile of Survey Respondents
Oil and Gas Production
Nonprofit or Voluntary Sector
IT, Internet, Software
Banking, Insurance and Finance
1 to 10 employees
11 to 49 employees
50 to 100 employees
101 to 249 employees
250 to 500 employees
More than 500 employees
Don't know/Not sure
Type of Organization
Other (please specify)
Don't know/Not sure
Level of Experience
Less than 2 years
Between 2 years and 5 years
Between 5 years and 10 years
Between 10 years and 20 years
Over 20 years
Jim Loud ([email protected]) currently consults and provides training for a variety of corporate and government clients. During his more than 40 years in safety, he spent nine years as safety director for a nuclear power facility and has managed corporate-level, safety-related organizations, including, training, quality assurance, independent assessment, and nuclear safety oversight for both the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM), and Certified Quality Auditor (CQA). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma, and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.