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Organizational Climate and Safety

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We live in an era of new technology and more complex production systems, where fluctuations in global economics, customer requirements and trade agreements affect a work organization’s relationships (Moravec 1994). Industries are facing new challenges in the establishment and maintenance of a healthy and safe work environment. In several studies, management’s safety efforts, management’s commitment and involvement in safety as well as quality of management have been stressed as key elements of the safety system (Mattila, Hyttinen and Rantanen 1994; Dedobbeleer and Béland 1989; Smith 1989; Heinrich, Petersen and Roos 1980; Simonds and Shafai-Sahrai 1977; Komaki 1986; Smith et al. 1978).

According to Hansen (1993a), management’s commitment to safety is not enough if it is a passive state; only active, visible leadership which creates a climate for performance can successfully guide a corporation to a safe workplace. Rogers (1961) indicated that “if the administrator, or military or industrial leader, creates such a climate within the organization, then staff will become more self-responsive, more creative, better able to adapt to new problems, more basically cooperative.” Safety leadership is thus seen as fostering a climate where working safely is esteemed—a safety climate.

Very little research has been done on the safety climate concept (Zohar 1980; Brown and Holmes 1986; Dedobbeleer and Béland 1991; Oliver, Tomas and Melia 1993; Melia, Tomas and Oliver 1992). People in organizations encounter thousands of events, practices and procedures, and they perceive these events in related sets. What this implies is that work settings have numerous climates and that safety climate is seen as one of them. As the concept of climate is a complex and multilevel phenomenon, organizational climate research has been plagued by theoretical, conceptual and measurement problems. It thus seems crucial to examine these issues in safety climate research if safety climate is to remain a viable research topic and a worthwhile managerial tool.

Safety climate has been considered a meaningful concept which has considerable implications for understanding employee performance (Brown and Holmes 1986) and for assuring success in injury control (Matttila, Hyttinen and Rantanen 1994). If safety climate dimensions can be accurately assessed, management may use them to both recognize and evaluate potential problem areas. Moreover, research results obtained with a standardized safety climate score can yield useful comparisons across industries, independent of differences in technology and risk levels. A safety climate score may thus serve as a guideline in the establishment of a work organization’s safety policy. This article examines the safety climate concept in the context of the organizational climate literature, discusses the relationship between safety policy and safety climate and examines the implications of the safety climate concept for leadership in the development and enforcement of a safety policy in an industrial organization.

The Concept of Safety Climate in Organizational Climate Research

Organizational climate research

Organizational climate has been a popular concept for some time. Multiple reviews of organizational climate have appeared since the mid-1960s (Schneider 1975a; Jones and James 1979; Naylor, Pritchard and Ilgen 1980; Schneider and Reichers 1983; Glick 1985; Koys and DeCotiis 1991). There are several definitions of the concept. Organizational climate has been loosely used to refer to a broad class of organizational and perceptual variables that reflect individual-organizational interactions (Glick 1985; Field and Abelson 1982; Jones and James 1979). According to Schneider (1975a), it should refer to an area of research rather than a specific unit of analysis or a particular set of dimensions. The term organizational climate should be supplanted by the word climate to refer to a climate for something.

The study of climates in organizations has been difficult because it is a complex and multi-level phenomenon (Glick 1985; Koys and DeCotiis 1991). Nevertheless, progress has been made in conceptualizing the climate construct (Schneider and Reichers 1983; Koys and DeCotiis 1991). A distinction proposed by James and Jones (1974) between psychological climates and organizational climates has gained general acceptance. The differentiation is made in terms of level of analysis. The psychological climate is studied at the individual level of analysis, and the organizational climate is studied at the organizational level of analysis. When regarded as an individual attribute, the term psychological climate is recommended. When regarded as an organizational attribute, the term organizational climate is seen as appropriate. Both aspects of climate are considered to be multi-dimensional phenomena, descriptive of the nature of employees perceptions of their experiences within a work organization.

Although the distinction between psychological and organizational climate is generally accepted, it has not extricated organizational climate research from its conceptual and methodological problems (Glick 1985). One of the unresolved problems is the aggregation problem. Organizational climate is often defined as a simple aggregation of psychological climate in an organization (James 1982; Joyce and Slocum 1984). The question is: How can we aggregate individuals’ descriptions of their work setting so as to represent a larger social unit, the organization? Schneider and Reichers (1983) noted that “hard conceptual work is required prior to data collection so that (a) the clusters of events assessed sample the relevant domain of issues and (b) the survey is relatively descriptive in focus and refers to the unit (i.e., individual, subsystem, total organization) of interest for analytical purposes.” Glick (1985) added that organizational climate should be conceptualized as an organizational phenomenon, not as a simple aggregation of psychological climate. He also acknowledged the existence of multiple units of theory and analysis (i.e., individual, subunit and organizational). Organizational climate connotes an organizational unit of theory; it does not refer to the climate of an individual, workgroup, occupation, department or job. Other labels and units of theory and analysis should be used for the climate of an individual and the climate of a workgroup.

Perceptual agreement among employees in an organization has received considerable attention (Abbey and Dickson 1983; James 1982). Low perceptual agreement on psychological climate measures are attributed to both random error and substantive factors. As employees are asked to report on the organization’s climate and not their psychological or work group climate, many of the individual-level random errors and sources of bias are considered to cancel each other when the perceptual measures are aggregated to the organizational level (Glick 1985). To disentangle psychological and organizational climates and to estimate the relative contributions of organizational and psychological processes as determinants of the organizational and psychological climates, use of multi-level models appears to be crucial (Hox and Kreft 1994; Rabash and Woodhouse 1995). These models take into account psychological and organizational levels without using averaged measures of organizational climates that are usually taken on a representative sample of individuals in a number of organizations. It can be shown (Manson, Wong and Entwisle 1983) that biased estimates of organizational climate averages and of effects of organizational characteristics on climates result from aggregating at the organizational level, measurements taken at the individual level. The belief that individual-level measurement errors are cancelled out when averaged over an organization is unfounded.

Another persistent problem with the concept of climate is the specification of appropriate dimensions of organizational and/or psychological climate. Jones and James (1979) and Schneider (1975a) suggested using climate dimensions that are likely to influence or be associated with the study’s criteria of interest. Schneider and Reichers (1983) extended this idea by arguing that work organizations have different climates for specific things such as safety, service (Schneider, Parkington and Buxton 1980), in-company industrial relations (Bluen and Donald 1991), production, security and quality. Although criterion referencing provides some focus in the choice of climate dimensions, climate remains a broad generic term. The level of sophistication required to be able to identify which dimensions of practices and procedures are relevant for understanding particular criteria in specific collectivities (e.g., groups, positions, functions) has not been reached (Schneider 1975a). However, the call for criterion-oriented studies does not per se rule out the possibility that a relatively small set of dimensions may still describe multiple environments while any particular dimension may be positively related to some criteria, unrelated to others and negatively related to a third set of outcomes.

The safety climate concept

The safety climate concept has been developed in the context of the generally accepted definitions of the organizational and psychological climate. No specific definition of the concept has yet been offered to provide clear guidelines for measurement and theory building. Very few studies have measured the concept, including a stratified sample of 20 industrial organizations in Israel (Zohar 1980), 10 manufacturing and produce companies in the states of Wisconsin and Illinois (Brown and Holmes 1986), 9 construction sites in the state of Maryland (Dedobbeleer and Béland 1991), 16 construction sites in Finland (Mattila, Hyttinen and Rantanen 1994, Mattila, Rantanen and Hyttinen 1994), and among Valencia workers (Oliver, Tomas and Melia 1993; Melia, Tomas and Oliver 1992).

Climate was viewed as a summary of perceptions workers share about their work settings. Climate perceptions summarize an individual’s description of his or her organizational experiences rather than his or her affective evaluative reaction to what has been experienced (Koys and DeCotiis 1991). Following Schneider and Reichers (1983) and Dieterly and Schneider (1974), safety climate models assumed that these perceptions are developed because they are necessary as a frame of reference for gauging the appropriateness of behaviour. Based on a variety of cues present in their work environment, employees were believed to develop coherent sets of perceptions and expectations regarding behaviour-outcome contingencies, and to behave accordingly (Frederiksen, Jensen and Beaton 1972; Schneider 1975a, 1975b).

Table 1 demonstrates some diversity in the type and number of safety climate dimensions presented in validation studies on safety climate. In the general organizational climate literature, there is very little agreement on the dimensions of organizational climate. However, researchers are encouraged to use climate dimensions that are likely to influence or be associated with the study’s criteria of interest. This approach has been successfully adopted in the studies on safety climate. Zohar (1980) developed seven sets of items that were descriptive of organizational events, practices and procedures and which were found to differentiate high- from low-accident factories (Cohen 1977). Brown and Holmes (1986) used Zohar’s 40-item questionnaire, and found a three-factor model instead of the Zohar eight-factor model. Dedobbeleer and Béland used nine variables to measure the three-factor model of Brown and Holmes. The variables were chosen to represent safety concerns in the construction industry and were not all identical to those included in Zohar’s questionnaire. A two-factor model was found. We are left debating whether differences between the Brown and Holmes results and the Dedobbeleer and Béland results are attributable to the use of a more adequate statistical procedure (LISREL weighted least squares procedure with tetrachoric correlations coefficients). A replication was done by Oliver, Tomas and Melia (1993) and Melia, Tomas and Oliver (1992) with nine similar but not identical variables measuring climate perceptions among post-traumatic and pre-traumatic workers from different types of industries. Similar results to those of the Dedobbeleer and Béland study were found.

Table 1. Safety climate measures




Zohar (1980)

Perceived importance of safety training
Perceived effects of required work pace on safety
Perceived status of safety committee
Perceived status of safety officer
Perceived effects of safe conduct on promotion
Perceived level of risk at workplace
Perceived management attitudes toward safety
Perceived effect of safe conduct on social status


Brown and Holmes (1986)

Employee perception of how concerned management is with their well-being
Employee perception of how active management is in responding to this concern
Employee physical risk perception


Dedobbeleer and Béland (1991)

Management’s commitment and involvement in safety
Workers’ involvement in safety


Melia, Tomas and Oliver (1992)

Dedobbeleer and Béland two-factor model


Oliver, Tomas and Melia (1993)

Dedobbeleer and Béland two-factor model



Several strategies have been used for improving the validity of safety climate measures. There are different types of validity (e.g., content, concurrent and construct) and several ways to evaluate the validity of an instrument. Content validity is the sampling adequacy of the content of a measuring instrument (Nunnally 1978). In safety climate research, the items are those shown by previous research to be meaningful measures of occupational safety. Other “competent” judges usually judge the content of the items, and then some method for pooling these independent judgements is used. There is no mention of such a procedure in the articles on safety climate.

Construct validity is the extent to which an instrument measures the theoretical construct the researcher wishes to measure. It requires a demonstration that the construct exists, that it is distinct from other constructs, and that the particular instrument measures that particular construct and no others (Nunnally 1978). Zohar’s study followed several suggestions for improving validity. Representative samples of factories were chosen. A stratified random sample of 20 production workers was taken in each plant. All questions focused on organizational climate for safety. To study the construct validity of his safety climate instrument, he used Spearman rank correlation coefficients to test the agreement between safety climate scores of factories and safety inspectors’ ranking of the selected factories in each production category according to safety practices and accident-prevention programmes. The level of safety climate was correlated with safety programme effectiveness as judged by safety inspectors. Using LISREL confirmatory factor analyses, Brown and Holmes (1986) checked the factorial validity of the Zohar measurement model with a sample of US workers. They wanted to validate Zohar’s model by the recommended replication of factor structures (Rummel 1970). The model was not supported by the data. A three-factor model provided a better fit. Results also indicated that the climate structures showed stability across different populations. They did not differ between employees who had accidents and those who had none, subsequently providing a valid and reliable climate measure across the groups. Groups were then compared on climate scores, and differences in climate perception were detected between the groups. As the model has the ability of distinguishing individuals who are known to differ, concurrent validity has been shown.

In order to test the stability of the Brown and Holmes three-factor model (1986), Dedobbeleer and Béland (1991) used two LISREL procedures (the maximum likelihood method chosen by Brown and Holmes and the weighted least squares method) with construction workers. Results revealed that a two-factor model provided an overall better fit. Construct validation was also tested by investigating the relationship between a perceptual safety climate measure and objective measures (i.e., structural and processes characteristics of the construction sites). Positive relationships were found between the two measures. Evidence was gathered from different sources (i.e., workers and superintendents) and in different ways (i.e., written questionnaire and interviews). Mattila, Rantanen and Hyttinen (1994) replicated this study by showing that similar results were obtained from the objective measurements of the work environment, resulting in a safety index, and the perceptual safety climate measures.

A systematic replication of the Dedobbeleer and Béland (1991) bifactorial structure was done in two different samples of workers in different occupations by Oliver, Tomas and Melia (1993) and Melia, Tomas and Oliver (1992). The two-factor model provided the best global fit. The climate structures did not differ between US construction workers and Spanish workers from different types of industries, subsequently providing a valid climate measure across different populations and different types of occupations.

Reliability is an important issue in the use of a measurement instrument. It refers to the accuracy (consistency and stability) of measurement by an instrument (Nunnally 1978). Zohar (1980) assessed organizational climate for safety in samples of organizations with diverse technologies. The reliability of his aggregated perceptual measures of organizational climate was estimated by Glick (1985). He calculated the aggregate level mean rater reliability by using the Spearman-Brown formula based on the intraclass correlation from a one-way analysis of variance, and found an ICC(1,k) of 0.981. Glick concluded that Zohar’s aggregated measures were consistent measures of organizational climate for safety. The LISREL confirmatory factor analyses conducted by Brown and Holmes (1986), Dedobbeleer and Béland (1991), Oliver, Tomas and Melia (1993) and Melia, Tomas and Oliver (1992) also showed evidence of the reliability of the safety climate measures. In the Brown and Holmes study, the factor structures remained the same for no accident versus accident groups. Oliver et al. and Melia et al. demonstrated the stability of the Dedobbeleer and Béland factor structures in two different samples.

Safety Policy and Safety Climate

The concept of safety climate has important implications for industrial organizations. It implies that workers have a unified set of cognitions regarding the safety aspects of their work settings. As these cognitions are seen as a necessary frame of reference for gauging the appropriateness of behaviour (Schneider 1975a), they have a direct influence on workers’ safety performance (Dedobbeleer, Béland and German 1990). There are thus basic applied implications of the safety climate concept in industrial organizations. Safety climate measurement is a practical tool that can be used by management at low cost to evaluate as well as recognize potential problem areas. It should thus be recommended to include it as one element of an organization’s safety information system. The information provided may serve as guidelines in the establishment of a safety policy.

As workers’ safety climate perceptions are largely related to management’s attitudes about safety and management’s commitment to safety, it can therefore be concluded that a change in management’s attitudes and behaviours are prerequisites for any successful attempt at improving the safety level in industrial organizations. Excellent management becomes safety policy. Zohar (1980) concluded that safety should be integrated in the production system in a manner which is closely related to the overall degree of control that management has over the production processes. This point has been stressed in the literature regarding safety policy. Management involvement is seen as critical to safety improvement (Minter 1991). Traditional approaches show limited effectiveness (Sarkis 1990). They are based on elements such as safety committees, safety meetings, safety rules, slogans, poster campaigns and safety incentives or contests. According to Hansen (1993b), these traditional strategies place safety responsibility with a staff coordinator who is detached from the line mission and whose task is almost exclusively to inspect the hazards. The main problem is that this approach fails to integrate safety into the production system, thereby limiting its ability to identify and resolve management oversights and insufficiencies that contribute to accident causation (Hansen 1993b; Cohen 1977).

Contrary to production workers in the Zohar and Brown and Holmes studies, construction workers perceived management’s safety attitudes and actions as one single dimension (Dedobbeleer and Béland 1991). Construction workers also perceived safety as a joint responsibility between individuals and management. These results have important implications for the development of safety policies. They suggest that management’s support and commitment to safety should be highly visible. Moreover, they indicate that safety policies should address the safety concerns of both management and workers. Safety meetings as the “cultural circles” of Freire (1988) can be a proper means for involving workers in the identification of safety problems and solutions to these problems. Safety climate dimensions are thus in close relationship with the partnership mentality to improve job safety, contrasting with the police enforcement mentality that was present in the construction industry (Smith 1993). In the context of expanding costs of health care and workers’ compensation, a non-adversarial labour-management approach to health and safety has emerged (Smith 1993). This partnership approach thus calls for a safety-management revolution, moving away from traditional safety programmes and safety policies.

In Canada, Sass (1989) indicated the strong resistance by management and government to extension of workers’ rights in occupational health and safety. This resistance is based upon economic considerations. Sass therefore argued for “the development of an ethics of the work environment based upon egalitarian principles, and the transformation of the primary work group into a community of workers who can shape the character of their work environment.” He also suggested that the appropriate relationship in industry to reflect a democratic work environment is “partnership”, the coming together of the primary work groups as equals. In Quebec, this progressive philosophy has been operationalized in the establishment of “parity committees” (Gouvernement du Québec 1978). According to law, each organization having more than ten employees had to create a parity committee, which includes employer’s and workers’ representatives. This committee has decisive power in the following issues related to the prevention programme: determination of a health services programme, choice of the company physician, ascertainment of imminent dangers and the development of training and information programmes. The committee is also responsible for preventive monitoring in the organization; responding to workers’ and employer’s complaints; analysing and commenting on accident reports; establishing a registry of accidents, injuries, diseases and workers’ complaints; studying statistics and reports; and communicating information on the committee’s activities.

Leadership and Safety Climate

To make things happen that enable the company to evolve toward new cultural assumptions, management has to be willing to go beyond “commitment” to participatory leadership (Hansen 1993a). The workplace thus needs leaders with vision, empowerment skills and a willingness to cause change.

Safety climate is created by the actions of leaders. This means fostering a climate where working safely is esteemed, inviting all employees to think beyond their own particular jobs, to take care of themselves and their co-workers, propagating and cultivating leadership in safety (Lark 1991). To induce this climate, leaders need perception and insight, motivation and skill to communicate dedication or commitment to the group beyond self-interest, emotional strength, ability to induce “cognition redefinition” by articulating and selling new visions and concepts, ability to create involvement and participation, and depth of vision (Schein 1989). To change any elements of the organization, leaders must be willing to “unfreeze” (Lewin 1951) their own organization.

According to Lark (1991), leadership in safety means at the executive level, creating an overall climate in which safety is a value and in which supervisors and non-supervisors conscientiously and in turn take the lead in hazard control. These executive leaders publish a safety policy in which they: affirm the value of each employee and of the group, and their own commitment to safety; relate safety to the continuance of the company and the achievement of its objectives; express their expectations that each individual will be responsible for safety and take an active part in keeping the workplace healthy and safe; appoint a safety representative in writing and empower this individual to execute corporate safety policy.

Supervisor leaders expect safe behaviour from subordinates and directly involve them in the identification of problems and their solutions. Leadership in safety for the non-supervisor means reporting deficiencies, seeing corrective actions as a challenge, and working to correct these deficiencies.

Leadership challenges and empowers people to lead in their own right. At the core of this notion of empowerment is the concept of power, defined as the ability to control the factors that determine one’s life. The new health promotion movement, however, attempts to reframe power not as “power over” but rather as “power to” or as “power with” (Robertson and Minkler 1994).


Only some of the conceptual and methodological problems plaguing organizational climate scientists are being addressed in safety climate research. No specific definition of the safety climate concept has yet been given. Nevertheless, some of the research results are very encouraging. Most of the research efforts have been directed toward validation of a safety climate model. Attention has been given to the specification of appropriate dimensions of safety climate. Dimensions suggested by the literature on organizational characteristics found to discriminate high versus low accident rate companies served as a useful starting point for the dimension identification process. Eight-, three- and two-factor models are proposed. As Occam’s razor demands some parsimony, the limitation of the dimensions seems pertinent. The two-factor model is thus most appropriate, in particular in a work context where short questionnaires need to be administered. The factor analytic results for the scales based on the two dimensions are very satisfactory. Moreover, a valid climate measure is provided across different populations and different occupations. Further studies should, however, be conducted if the replication and generalization rules of theory testing are to be met. The challenge is to specify a theoretically meaningful and analytically practical universe of possible climate dimensions. Future research should also focus on organizational units of analysis in assessing and improving the validity and reliability of the organizational climate for safety measures. Several studies are being conducted at this moment in different countries, and the future looks promising.

As the safety climate concept has important implications for safety policy, it becomes particularly crucial to resolve the conceptual and methodological problems. The concept clearly calls for a safety-management revolution. A process of change in management attitudes and behaviours becomes a prerequisite to attaining safety performance. “Partnership leadership” has to emerge from this period where restructuring and layoffs are a sign of the times. Leadership challenges and empowers. In this empowerment process, employers and employees will increase their capacity to work together in a participatory manner. They will also develop skills of listening and speaking up, problem analysis and consensus building. A sense of community should develop as well as self-efficacy. Employers and employees will be able to build on this knowledge and these skills.



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