Safety climate explained

Safety climate is a theoretical term used by safety and personnel professionals to describe the sum of employee perceptions regarding overall safety within the workplace. Much debate still continues over the definition and application of "safety climate" as the term is often used interchangeably with "safety culture." This article will discuss various aspects of safety climate as a term of art, including its origin within the safety and management profession, various definitions, empirical development, common measurement methods and its validity and predictive value.


As part of overall risk and safety management, employers often include components designed to create a culture in which employees share a common goal of creating a safe workplace.[1] Traditionally, ‘lagging indicators’ have been used to identify trends in accidents that are occurring within the workplace. Lagging indicators include the number of lost time injuries, time and place of accident, type of injury, etc.

However, in recent years an increasing body of evidence suggests that more attention should be focussed on ‘leading indicators’, measures that precede or predict safety outcomes and indicate the impact of human, organizational and managerial factors on safety performance.By identifying an organization’s safety climate or safety culture within a workplace, managers gain an opportunity to identify the state of safety within that workplace without having to wait for the system to fail.

Three components of safety culture can be objectively monitored as a predicitive indicator of potential safety risk. These components include: situational, behavioural, and psychological aspects.[2]

1. Situational aspects can be observed through the organization’s management systems, policies, working procedures, communication flow, etc. and can be measured by audits of safety management systems.

2. Behavioral aspects relate to how people act in the workplace and can be measured through self-reported data, outcome measures and peer observations. The psychological component relates to employees norms, values, attitudes and perceptions of safety in the workplace.

3. Psychological components are commonly measured in the form of a safety climate survey.[3] Surveys of this type often consist of a number of various safety climate measures (e.g. management commitment), thought to be important in developing a positive safety culture. Results are then correlated against a performance measure to determine the predictive validity of the survey.

Over the past 30 years a number inquiries into the causes of major disasters have identified safety culture as having a direct impact on the outcome of the disaster.[4] Such incidents as the Challenger space shuttle disaster, Chernobyl and Bhopal are examples of how an organization’s safety culture has had a direct impact on safety performance. Along with other catastrophic events like Piper Alpha and Dryden, they highlight the importance of, and need for active monitoring of leading indicators in order to avoid such tragic outcomes.[5]

A Methodology in the Making

Currently few tools exist that can accurately and objectively measure the psychological component of an organization’s safety culture. However, an ongoing effort within the safety profession is attempting to change that.[6] Although there has been an increase in empirical research, the development of safety climate theory has not seen the same level of progression. Little consensus has been reached on key aspects of the concept.[7] Researchers lack consistency in defining key terms such as "safety climate" and "safety culture." Despite 30 years of research and study, confusion remains over precisely what is meant by those terms.[8]

Other concerns have been raised regarding lack of consistency in what are considered to be appropriate measurement factors for determining the nature of a given workplace safety climate. Safety climate surveys, one of the chief measurement tools, vary widely in the kind and number of issues assessed. Furthermore there is a lack of evidence to demonstrate that current measurement tools employed by the safety profession adequately indicate the state of safety in the workplace.[9]

Organizational Climate and Organizational Culture

Two other terms, Organizationl Climate and Organizational Culture, are also used to discuss management techniques and employee workplace attitudes. Similar to safety climate and safety culture, Organizational Climate and the related notions of Organizational Culture have two very distinct origins. “In the 1950's and 60's, the field of organizational psychology began to differentiate itself from industrial psychology.”[10] This move allowed the field of organizational psychology to draw influences and concepts from sociology (the study of social problems) and anthropology (the comparative study of human societies and cultures and their development).[11] The theory of Organizational Culture then gained significant attention during the 1980’s in organizational psychology, and in organizational behaviour and management literature.[12] The concept of "organisational culture" was attractive within the management and safety profession as it enabled managers to gain a birds-eye perspective of the company.[13] Common traits have emerged in defining organizational culture, safety culture, and safety climate including an emphasis on ‘shared values’ (what is important), ‘beliefs’ (how things work), and ‘behavioural norms’ (the way we do things around here).

Definitions of the terms "organizational climate" and "organizational culture" vary widely. To add to the confusion, those definitions share similar characteristics and traits found in definitions of Safety Climate and Safety Culture.[14]

A number of difficulties arise in trying to identify and change the culture of an organization. On the one hand, identifying the nature of an organization's culture requires members of that organization to reveal their underlying attitudes and beliefs. At the same time, to effect change in that culture requires modification of those underlying beliefs and values. Both identifying those beliefs and changing them are difficult tasks. Beliefs and values cannot merely be created; culture is developed over a period of time and is influenced by a number of external factors. That process takes time and requires an individual to interact, observe and socialise with the other employees.[15]

Which raises the question of how a researcher is able to measure the culture of a workplace without being a member of that workplace. If indeed culture involves aspects that are ‘unwritten’ or ‘unspoken’, they cannot easily be analysed and measured by people outside of the culture.[16]

Safety Culture vs. Safety Climate

Although there are similarities in the definitions of the two terms, safety culture is generally described as safety attitudes, values, and practices that exist at a deeper level than safety climate.[17] Safety Culture refers to “individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and style and proficiency of, an organization's health and safety management.”[18] Safety Cimate refers to the attitudes towards safety within an organization, while Safety Culture is concerned with the underlying beliefs and prevailing values of the work group.[19]

Safety Culture is “the fundamental underlying beliefs and values of a group of people in relation to risk and safety.”[20] A more common explanation describes Safety Culture as simply “the way we do things around here.” [21] Climate is “the manifestation of safety culture in the behavior and expressed attitude of employees.”[22] Thus, Safety Climate refers more specifically to workers’ perceptions of how safety is managed in the workplace and the likelihood those perceptions will contribute to a workplace accident.

Although an organization may have the same policies and procedures, individuals and workgroups may interpret policies and procedures differently.[23] This occurs because different workgroups are exposed to varying levels of risk and form their own customs and practices.[24] In turn this influences how safety is perceived, the way safety is managed, and the emphasis placed on compliance.[25]

The terms safety climate and safety culture are poorly established and are often used interchangeably.[26] To add to the problem, another related term, safety management has emerged that is often indistinguishable from safety climate/culture.[27] The individual attitudes and behaviors (safety climate) of an organization are determined by the workplace safety management system and practices.[28] Management's safety attitudes and behaviors make their way down through the organization to the workforce.[29]

Where the two concepts differ is in the fact that safety culture denotes the underlying beliefs, values and attitudes towards work and the organization in general, while safety climate describes safety culture in action.[30] and the daily perceptions of safety management.[31] Safety climate is a more accurate indicator of safety culture within the workplace, with safety management practices perceived as an indication of the safety culture within senior management. If an organization has good safety management practices, there will be a better safety climate within the workforce.

In spite of inconsistency between the use and definition of the terms safety culture and safety climate, a number of researchers in the field believe that a distinction remains between the two concepts.[32]

Defining Safety Climate

The concept of safety climate is used to describe the general perceptions of, and attitudes towards how safety is managed in the workplace. As a concept, safety climate shows the surface features of safety culture.[33] Though the safety climate of an organization may change on a daily basis, the underlying beliefs, values and behavioural norms will remain largely unchanged. The dynamic nature of safety climate, which has the ability to change on a daily basis, means there is a great need for reliable tools that can measure the safety climate of an organization.[34] Consequently these tools (psychometric measures) can be utilized in determining the effectiveness of safety programs in the workplace, and how to improve future programs.[35]

The concept of safety climate emphasises the importance of how organizations manage health and safety in the workplace.[36] It is important that managers consider that any changes made to the operations of a business, will have an impact on workers perceptions. ‘These perceptions have a psychological utility in serving as a frame of reference for guiding appropriate and adaptive task behaviour.’[37] As the workers environment changes around them, they adapt their perceptions and ultimately their behaviours. Consequently safety-related behaviors of workers (i.e. wearing PPE, following safety procedures) are influenced by the their perceptions and attitudes towards safety.[38] In spite of any confusion over definitions, there is general consensus amongst researchers on the impact that climate has on processes such as communication, decision-making, problem solving, conflict resolution, attitudes, motivation, etc. and therefore on result variables such as satisfaction or performance.

Any one organization might have a number of different climates, for example, an organization may have a safety climate, motivation climate, creativity climate, etc.[39] More recent definitions of safety climate share similar descriptions.[40]

Empirical Assessment of Safety Climate

Measuring safety climate is still relatively new when compared with the concepts of social and work climate.[41] Previous to Zohar’s (1980) study of the Israeli manufacturing sector, the assessment of an organizations culture had never been specifically focused on assessing the attitudes of employees in relation to safety. Since then, there have been a number of studies and research teams that have aimed at developing a reliable measure of safety climate. As the concept has received more recognition and importance, there has been a growing increase in the number of safety climate measures; however, most of the focus has been on “refining question sets in order to improve face-validity.”[42]

As the research field has grown, researchers have adopted a variety of methods in order to develop a quantitative measure of safety climate.[43] Some researchers use qualitative methods, such as focus groups and interviews, to gather information that might identify important areas (relating to safety) that require further attention.[44] Aside from focus groups a number of other studies have utilized interviews with management and employees to assist with the development of a questionnaire.[45]

Although a large amount of research has focused on what safety measures should be included in the make-up of a questionnaire, there is still confusion over the number and type of safety climate measures that should be included.[46] However, a number of safety climate measures are commonly included, for example, management commitment, supervisor competence, priority of safety over production, and time pressure.[47] These studies have identified safety climate measures that have emerged as predictors of unsafe behavior and accidents in numerous structural models.


  1. See, COOPER, M. D. (2000) Towards a model of safety culture Safety Science 36 111- 136. See also, Clarke, 1999 and 2003. Cooper notes that the UK Health and Safety Commission recommends that companies develop a “positive safety culture” in order to prevent workplace accidents. A “good” or “positive” safety culture arises from a shared understanding among employees that ‘safety is the number one priority’. In order to develop a positive safety culture, managers must be aware of the current state of an organization’s health and safety performance.
  2. (Gadd S and Collins A.M. 2002)
  3. See, Gadd, S. and Collins A.M. 2002
  4. See,Gadd S. and Collins A.M. 2002
  5. Lord Cullen stated during the Piper Alpha inquiry that, “it is essential to create a corporate atmosphere or culture in which safety is understood to be and is accepted as, the number one priority.” See,Cullen, 1990, p.300
  6. See,Yule, (2003). Since Zohar’s study of safety climate in the Israeli manufacturing sector, there has been growing empirical research into the concept of safety climate and the ability to measure the state of safety in the workplace. See, Zohar (1980)
  7. See, Guldenmund, (2000); See also, Yule, (2003). Guldenmund (2000) highlights that the concept is still yet to progress past the developmental stage and affirms that “although the importance of the safety climate concept is stressed by most authors, very few have attempted to support their claim by reporting an indication of its construct validity or predictive value”. Yule (2003) echoes these concerns stating that “although there is general consensus among researchers, regulatory bodies, and industry that safety climate is a worthwhile concept for research and application, there is still little consensus over important issues”.
  8. See, Glendon A.I., McKenna E.F. and Clarke S.G. (2006) "There is little agreement on its definition, and even less on ways of improving it, despite widespread recognition that a positive safety culture is a prerequisite for successfully managing safety risks” (p. 363).Similar arguments can be made for safety climate as Guldenmund (2000) has highlighted that the term safety climate is often used interchangeably with safety culture. He states that these concepts are “still ill-defined” and goes on to say that there is an unclear relationship between the two concepts of safety climate and safety culture.
  9. See, Flin et al. (2000); Guldenmund F.W. (2000); Williamson et al. (1997)
  10. Schein (1988), p.2
  11. See, Schein (1988).
  12. On the other hand, Yule believes that organizational climate originated out of social and behavioural psychology in the 1950’s and 1960’s. See, Yule, (2003).
  13. But see, Guldenmund (2000) who believes the concepts could possibly become meaningless as the concepts are so ‘global and abstract’ (p. 216).
  14. See, Pettegrew (1979). Pettegrew defines organizational culture as ‘symbols, languages, ideologies, rituals, and myths.’ And see, Schein (1985) Schein defines organizational culture as what the employees perceive and how this perception creates a pattern of beliefs, values, and expectations.Schein goes on to describe organizational culture as ‘a pattern of basic assumptions – invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with the problems of external adaptation and internal integration – that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive things.’See also, Uttal (1983), p. 67 defining organizational culture as ‘Shared values and beliefs that interact with an organization’s structures and control systems to produce behavioural norms.’
  15. Yule, (2003).
  16. See, Yule (2003),‘If only those embroiled in a particular culture can understand it, how are they able to communicate it?’
  17. See, Neal and Griffin (2002); Seo et al., (2004); Schein 1992).
  18. HSC, (1993a, p. 23).
  19. See, Guldenmund (2000)
  20. See, Glendon, Clarke and McKenna (2006), p. 363
  21. See, CBI, (1990)
  22. See, Mearns et. al (2003). In other words, safety climate is the expressed attitudes towards safety within an organization; it identifies surface features of that organization’s safety culture. See also, Flin et al. (2000)
  23. See, Cox and Cheyne (2000); See also, Waring (1992)
  24. See, Cooper (1998)
  25. See, Cooper, (1998)
  26. See, Guldenmund (2000)
  27. See, Mearns et al. (2003). See also, Gadd and Collins (2002)
  28. See, Hoffmann et al., (1995)
  29. See, Mearns et al., (2003)
  30. See, Cox and Flin, (1998)
  31. See, Yule, (2003)
  32. See, Glendon, Clarke and McKenna (2006)Those authors included Glick (1985), Moran and Volkwein (1992), Schein (1992), Cox and Flin (1998), Hale and Hovden (1998), Mearns and Flin (1999), Glendon and Stanton (2000), Guldenmund (2000), Hale (2000), Harvey et al. (2002), Seo et al. (2004), and Hopkins (2004). Rousseau (1988) believes that there should be a distinction between the two concepts as safety climate is more specific than safety culture. She argues that safety climate refers to people’s perceptions about their everyday experiences, whilst safety culture refers to the established social group norms (Cited in Cooper, 1998 p. 23).
  33. (See, Guldenmund (2000); See also, Flin et al., (2000)
  34. See, Cooper (1998)
  35. See, Cox and Cox (1991) who propose that employee attitudes can be influenced by many features of the working environment, which further highlights its importance as a measure of safety climate/culture. See also, Mearns et al., (2003) pointing out that the concept of safety climate has provided a new way to measure safety culture and has led to a dramatic increase in the number of surveys that claim to measure safety climate.
  36. See, Cooper, (1998)
  37. See, Zohar (1980), p. 96
  38. See, Cooper (1998)
  39. See, Zohar (1980); The term organizational climate should be supplemented with an appropriate adjective to describe the type of climate being measured. The term climate should be applied to a specific area of research, rather than an organizational measure. Therefore safety climate was developed and defined as ‘a summary of molar perceptions that employees share about their work environments’ (p. 96).He goes on to explain that “based on a variety of cues present in their work environment, employees develop coherent sets of perceptions and expectations regarding behaviour-outcome contingencies and behave accordingly”.Employees learn how to behave according to information that is being communicated to them. If an employee knows that it is common practice not to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) on the construction site, they will be unlikely to wear PPE on site.
  40. For example, Niskanen (1994) describes safety climate as “a set of attributes that can be perceived about particular work organizations and which may be induced by the policies and practices that organizations impose on their workers.” (p. 241). Furthermore, Cabrera, Isla and Vilela (1997) identify safety climate as ‘shared perceptions of organizational members about their work environment and, more precisely, about their organizational safety policies’. Dedobbeleer and Bleland (1991) adopt a similar definition to Zohar (1980) and Brown and Holmes (1986) and define safety climate as ‘molar perceptions people have of their work settings’ (p. 97).
  41. See, Yule, (2003).
  42. See, Yule, (2003). Yule highlights that instead of focusing on the construct or predictive value of surveys, some researchers have been getting carried away with “factor analyses and internal consistency checks”. (He goes on to highlight that the research field needs to address issues of ‘constructive and predictive validity’ in order to progress the level of research past its developmental stages.
  43. Flin et al., (2000) point out that the structure of safety climate studies vary in terms of statistical analysis, size, composition of workers and industry. Gadd and Collins (2002) state that this creates a number of difficulties when trying to compare measures because of such methodological differences, but also because of varying cultures and languages.
  44. Lee (1998) used focus groups in combination with a literature review in order to establish a questionnaire for a nuclear reprocessing plant. The focus groups identified a range of specific areas that should be included in the questionnaire (Lee and Harrison, 2000).
  45. Ostrom et al., (1993) conducted interviews with 86 employees (including managers, professionals, office workers and laborers). Each of the employees was asked three questions. The questions were designed to elicit future and current norms, and get employees to ‘consider and compare the present with the desired future’ (p. 165). Additionally Ostrom et al., (1993) posed a question to a group of managers, where they were required to write down their own personal safety philosophy, what they believe about safety and what they would like each of their employees to understand (p. 165).
  46. A number of reviews of safety climate literature (see Guldenmund 2000; Flin et al., 2000) have identified that the number of measures used in a survey may range anywhere from 2 to 19 different measures.
  47. See, Flin et al.(2000)


reference article: Cooper, M.D., & Phillips, R.A. 'Exploratory Analysis of the Safety Climate and Safety Behavior Relationship'. Jnl of Safety Research, 35 (2004), 497-512.

See also