Safety Climate, Supervisory Behavior Linked to Accident Underreporting

By Roy Maurer Feb 5, 2014

An organization’s safety climate and supervisors’ safety-enforcement behaviors are significantly related to employee underreporting of work-related accidents, according to research supported in part by the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation.

Specifically, employees whose supervisors consistently enforced safety behaviors and who were employed in organizations with a positive safety climate were less likely to engage in accident underreporting.

“These results may benefit HR and safety professionals by pinpointing methods of increasing the accuracy of accident reporting, reducing actual safety incidents, and reducing the costs to individuals and organizations that result from underreporting,” said Dr. Tahira M. Probst, a professor at Washington State University in Vancouver, Wash., and the author of the report.

Probst used modeling and survey data collected from 1,379 employees in 35 organizations. Together, the organizations represented a wide range of industry sectors, including manufacturing, construction, transportation, mining, pulp and paper processing, health care, food processing, and distribution. The average industry injury rate of the participating organizations was 5.33 per 100 full-time equivalent workers, which is higher than the latest national average across all industries (3.4).

Each year, approximately 3 million U.S. workers are injured on the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Underreporting Is Common

Although the exact extent of the phenomenon varies, researchers have found that between 50 percent and 70 percent of employees did not report accidents and injuries to supervisors and that up to 68 percent of all workplace accidents and injuries are not captured in national injury surveillance systems set up by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the BLS.

Probst found that the number of accidents reported by employees was significantly lower than the actual number of accidents experienced. Specifically, the average number of accidents reported (1.47 per employee) across organizations was significantly lower than the average number of accidents experienced (3.43 per employee).

Why Don’t Workers Report Accidents?

Research examining why employees fail to report on-the-job injuries to their employers have yielded many potential explanations, such as that underreporting may be influenced by demographic and attitudinal characteristics such as age, tenure, fear of reprisals or loss of workplace perks and pay incentives, fear of job loss and individual beliefs regarding accidents and injuries as an occupational hazard.

Other research has indicated the importance of an organization’s safety climate. A company’s safety climate includes:

  • The extent to which management places a high priority on safety.
  • An open exchange of information regarding safety.
  • Safety training that is accessible, relevant and comprehensive.
  • Safety systems and their perceived effectiveness.

Probst found that organizational safety climate was significantly related to the number of employee accidents and that positive perceptions of the safety climate were related to fewer employee accidents. She also found that employees in organizations with a poor safety climate engaged in more accident underreporting than employees in organizations with more positive safety climates.

“First, if employees lack safety training or if safety communication is poor, then they may not know what constitutes a reportable incident or how to correctly report it to the organization,” she said. “Further, if management is perceived as devaluing safety, employees may, correctly or not, assume that their company doesn’t want to hear or know about injuries when they occur.

Additionally, punitive safety systems may serve to encourage underreporting by making rewards and punishments contingent upon safety outcomes rather than safety behaviors.”

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Probst argues that safety leadership is related to employee safety compliance. She defines two different types of supervisory safety leadership, based on recent research: transformational safety leadership, which is concerned with “idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration,” and transactional safety leadership, which involves an exchange between the leader and his or her subordinates, whereby the leader “provides resources and rewards in exchange for motivation, goal or task accomplishments (i.e., positively reinforcing appropriate behaviors and disciplining inappropriate behaviors).”

The study found that employees who indicated low levels of transactional supervisor enforcement of safety policies not only experienced more accidents at work, but also engaged in more underreporting compared to employees who had stronger supervisor enforcement of safety policies. Additionally, among organizations with a poor safety climate, the relationship between supervisor safety enforcement and accident underreporting was stronger and the highest levels of underreporting occurred among employees who had poor supervisor enforcement and were employed in organizations with a poor safety climate.

“There are theoretical reasons to expect that employees whose supervisors are lax in enforcing safety policies may themselves be more likely to be lax in reporting injuries to their supervisors,” said Probst. “Active transactional leaders closely monitor the behaviors of their subordinates and take proactive steps to guide appropriate employee behavior. Because accident reporting is a compliance-driven behavior, supervisors who are higher in transactional safety leadership (and therefore, place greater focus on proactive error management) can be expected to provide their employees with greater extrinsic motivation for engaging in these appropriate reporting behaviors.”

Finally, Probst found that the influence of one’s supervisor carries more weight than the company safety climate on an employee’s decision to report an accident or injury.

“Whereas the safety climate may be viewed in light of the formal policies, supervisors serve as the ‘interface’ between the organizational-level safety climate and the employee’s experience of how those policies are enacted on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

Employer Takeaways

The results of the research suggest that safety climate and supervisory enforcement behaviors are both important to determining not only whether employees experience accidents at work, but also whether employees are comfortable bringing safety concerns and incidents to the attention of their supervisor in order to address the root causes of the problem.

She offered three recommendations for HR and safety managers:

  • Design more effective safety incentive systems. Probst said research shows that common safety incentive programs in which employees are rewarded for being accident-free drive down accident reporting. To achieve improved safety outcomes rather than merely fewer reported accidents, she suggested simply having a supervisor praise employees for safe behavior and punish for unsafe behavior.
  • Conduct a safety-climate self-assessment and use this knowledge to predict the extent to which significant levels of accident underreporting are occurring.
  • Develop more effective organizational leaders. “The study provides yet another piece of evidence highlighting the importance of developing good leader-employee relations where employees trust their supervisors and feel comfortable reporting unsafe conditions or safety incidents without fear of repercussions,” Probst said.

“Moreover, they speak to the importance of supervisors providing regular feedback (both positive and negative) in response to observed employee safety behaviors.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy


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