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Safety culture" has been an important buzzword in occupational health for many years. But recent research shows that the broad goal has one key component: The attitude of supervisors.1
"The positive work environment is strongly related to positive employee outcomes — and patient outcomes," says Deirdre McCaughey, PhD, MBA, assistant professor of health policy and administration at The Pennsylvania State University in University Park, PA.
McCaughey and colleagues studied the work environment among a group of hospital employees who are often overlooked — food service and environmental services workers. They probed workplace perceptions among 1,272 support workers at 11 acute care hospitals. The study used well-established patient safety questionnaires as a basis, altering the wording to reflect employee safety.
For example, workers assessed whether it was true that ''the actions of hospital management show that worker safety is a top priority'' or whether worker safety is ever sacrificed to get more work done. Workers also gave their units an overall safety grade — from failing to excellent.
"We found that there's a positive relationship between supervisor safety leadership and [employee] safety perceptions," McCaughey says. "When employees see that their unit supervisor engages in and takes safety seriously, the employees are going to have higher safety perceptions and they're going to rate their unit as a safer place to work in."
The same association exists between the safety leadership of senior management and worker perceptions, she says.
In this case, perception is also reality. Employees with lower perceptions of safety were more likely to report having been injured. "The odds of being injured are substantially reduced when employees have these [positive] safety perceptions," McCaughey says. "When they have poor perceptions, they're twice as likely to report having been injured."
Co-worker support also plays an important role, she found. Workers who reported higher levels of coworker support also had a higher perception of safety and fewer reports of injuries.
The research demonstrates the importance of setting priorities and expectations for safety, McCaughey says.
It goes beyond establishing policies or providing safety training, she says. Strong leaders build cohesive teams and emphasize collaboration and they demonstrate that employee safety is a priority, she says.
The findings show that safety leadership and coworker support are important components of safety climate. That holds true for both patient safety and worker safety, McCaughey says.
"The cognitive mechanisms that create a safe environment for a worker are the same mechanisms that create a safe environment for patients," she says. "Greater emphasis on safety promotes employee safety compliance, resulting in safer outcomes for everyone."