Organizational Development

Improving Workplace Safety

Occupational accidents account for several thousand fatalities and several million injuries and illnesses each year. Ensuring that employees are performing safety behaviors on the job is one way that employers can help create a safe working environment. The more employees engage in safe working behaviors, the fewer accidents occur on the job. There are two broad factors that directly relate to employees’ safety performance:
  • Safety Knowledge – An employee’s knowledge about how to perform proper safety behaviors on the job.
  • Safety Motivation – An employee’s motivation to act in accordance with safety precautions.
Each employee’s safety knowledge and motivation are influenced by a number of personality traits and situational factors that help determine his or her propensity to perform safety behaviors.

Personality Traits

The personality traits that relate to safety behaviors are inherent to individual employees and vary from person to person.
  • Conscientiousness – Includes responsibility, dependability, and the proclivity to set and achieve personal goals. Highly conscientious employees are more likely to have high safety motivation.
  • Locus of control – Individuals with an internal locus of control tend to see themselves as being in control of their environment. These employees will likely be higher in safety motivation because they feel that they have the ability to take control of their own safety in the workplace by increasing their safety knowledge. Employees with an external locus of control do not view themselves as being in control of events in their lives, and may have lower motivation to learn about ways to stay safe at work.
  • Risk-taking – An individual’s desire to take risks and act impulsively. Employees with higher tendencies towards risk-taking may be more likely to behave in unsafe ways. Employees with less desire to take risks will likely be less likely to behave in an unsafe way at work.

Situational Factors

Situational factors are environmental influences occurring in the workplace. These can come from the organization itself or from others within the organization, like supervisors or peers.
  • Safety Climate – Employees’ perceptions of their organization’s safety policies and procedures. The perceived emphasis that the organization places on safety can have a great impact on how individual employees view the importance of safety in the workplace. A positive safety climate will increase employee safety knowledge through training and supportive policies and will increase safety by offering implicit or explicit rewards for behaving in a safe way.
  • Leadership – Perceptions of organizational leaders’ behavior; employees who have positive relationships with their supervisor are more likely to engage in safety behaviors. Employees who view their supervisor in a positive way will be more inclined to reciprocate with positive behaviors, including engaging in safety behaviors.

Implications for Practice

Because worker safety is influenced by person and situation factors, employers can improve worker safety through multiple avenues. The authors of this study make several suggestions about how to do so:
  • Conscientiousness, locus of control, and risk-taking influence employees’ performance of safety behaviors. Including assessments for these personality variables in the selection process can help determine which employees will be more likely to engage in proper workplace safety behaviors.
  • Use training, both formal (such as classroom training) and informal (information-sharing through supervisors and coworkers), to increase safety knowledge and encourage employees’ safety motivation.
  • Improve safety climate to increase employee safety performance behaviors. Do this by establishing organizational safety policies and related practices and communicating the organization’s commitment to employee safety.
  • Ensure that managers are properly trained and supported. Remember that when leaders and employees have a positive relationship, employees are more likely to engage in safety behaviors.

Michelle Toelle


This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Christian, M.S., Bradley, J.C., Wallace, J.C., Burke, M. J. (2009). Workplace safety: A meta-analysis of the roles of person and situation factors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1103-1127.