The Frontier Psychologist

How can we revitalise employee motivation and interest in workplace safety? Andrew Sharman believes his new research shows the way forward.


Andrew Sharman

Prof. Andrew Sharman
Chief Executive, President Elect, Chairman
RMS Switzerland, IOSH, Institute of leadership & Management, Switzerland

Traditionally, companies, around the world and across international borders and industries, have focused on building effective safety-management programmes to reduce workplace accidents. However, now that the safety performance of many companies has levelled off, they’re wondering what to do next.

Dying for their jobs

The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that almost 2,8-million fatal accidents occur at work every year. This means that every day almost 7 700 people die of work-related disease or injury. By the time you’ve finished reading this article 80 people will have lost their lives at work.

In addition, there are around 374-million non-fatal, work-related injuries and illnesses each year. Many of these result in extended absences from work. It’s certainly a sobering picture of the modern workplace – where workers have the potential to suffer serious consequences as a result of simply “doing their job”. It’s quickly apparent that the way we’re doing things isn't working.

In a bid to understand why, we conducted research interviews with more than 60 safety directors, CEOs and operational vice presidents from leading multinational bluechip companies based in Europe, Asia, North and South America, as well as the Gulf region and across Africa.

The findings are indicative of views from a diverse range of industries, with over 30 different industry sectors represented, including food and beverage production, power generation and supply, automotive, oil and gas, aviation, public transport, chemicals, mining, heavy engineering, and fast-moving consumer goods.

The questions posed reflected four strategic themes: Drivers for and challenges to great workplace safety; Safety innovation and inspiration; Confidence and competence; and Future focus.

By assuring the participants’ anonymity, the ensuing dialogues provided a rich source of thought and opinion from some of the most influential international safety practitioners and business leaders around the world.

Current workplace safety motivators

A number of important themes emerged from the interviews. The first was that safety performance in around half (49 percent) of the companies is driven by the desire to reduce injuries and fatalities through a “zero harm” campaign or initiative.

A third of respondents see this as their moral duty and feel the need to meet stakeholder and industry peer expectations. The same percentage (34 percent) also believes that good safety performance is necessary to protect corporate reputation. Penalties in the form of regulatory fines and also the fear of enforcement action are a relatively small motivator, being cited by only around a fifth (18 percent) of interviewees.

However, the proportion of companies to have enshrined safety in their organisational values (as opposed to simply reciting a slogan of “Safety First!”) is equally small at just 17 percent.