BISE Digest: Week of Nov. 13


Effective Safety Leadership & Practical Tips for Culture Change

By Kevin Slates, Ed.D., M.P.A., CSP
Associate Clinical Professor Indiana University

I recently completed a training a session on the topic of hazard identification and control. After the 4-hour session, I reflected on the ideas and concepts presented. Despite the fact that incident investigation is considered by many OSH practitioners as essential to positive safety outcomes, I felt the audience needed more clarification on the antecedents that lead to workplace hazardous conditions.

Upon reflection, I realized that the instructor failed to mention the relationship between culture and safety leadership. This article does not aim to minimize the value of hazard identification in the workplace, nor does it try to expand on the theoretical constructs and interaction of leadership and culture. However, it does discuss the fundamental value of understanding effective leadership and implications for safety culture. I will offer several practical recommendations for culture change. Culture is defined as the attitudes, values and believes associated the organizational norms.

Changing a company’s culture can be a very difficult and daunting task. Researchers (Lussier & Achua, 2004) suggest several options leaders can take to successfully change organizational culture.

  1. Leaders must be able to recognize which aspects or beliefs, values or behavior norms of the current culture are supportive or counterproductive to achieving organizational goals and objectives.
  2. The leader must be able to communicate to all employees which values, behaviors or beliefs need to be changed to achieve a strong organizational culture.
  3. The leader must be seen by employees as modeling the new expected behaviors or policies suggested by management. If the leader’s actions and behaviors match expected organizational values and beliefs, employees are more likely to match the espoused culture (Lussier & Achua, 2004).

Lussier and Achua (2004) propose that leaders can use substantive and symbolic actions to shape the organizational culture they desire.

Substantive Actions

  • Address new facility design.
  • Create a safety committee.
  • Replace old employees with new employees.
  • Develop written values and mission statements.
  • Create new and change old dysfunctional policies.

Symbolic Actions

  • Leaders serve as role models and mentors to new employees.
  • Special recognition is given to employee achievement and leaders make appearances.
  • Rewards and incentives are established as is organizational structure.
  • Quit your job and, if able, provide comments during your exit interview.

It is important to understand that effective leadership behavior directly influences culture, which in turn increases safety performance within the workplace. Safety leadership should be considered by hiring managers and human resources professionals when selecting candidates.

By understanding this, OSH professionals can develop effective policies, procedures and training programs to influence ineffective organizational culture and change the attitudes, values and beliefs of employees. It is self-evident that people’s actions and behavior can be influenced by their positive or negative perception of leadership. How employees perceive they are treated is a major indicator of the level of safety performance in a company.


Lussier, R.N. & Achua, C.F. (2004). Leadership: Theory, application, skill development (2nd ed.). Mason, OH: Thompson South Western.

Kevin Slates. Ed.D., M.P.A., CSP, is a clinical associate professor and Safety Unit Chair at Indiana University, Bloomington. Before joining the university, he worked for the Kentucky Environmental Protection Cabinet’s OSH program. In 2016, Slates was selected by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News as a Top 50 Safety and Health Leader of Today and Tomorrow.


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