Empowered Workers Are Safer Workers

It’s time to look beyond standard safety practices to reduce workplace injuries
Alan Morantz
Empowered Workers Are Safer Workers

Many workplace injuries are due as much to poor training and lax supervision as to hazardous work environments. These are the sorts of managerial factors that arise from traditional human resource management (HRM), but are overlooked when considering how to reduce workplace injury. Instead, most of the focus is on assessing and improving safety-specific systems.

A recent study shifted the focus of injury prevention to HRM practices. It looked at whether five HRM practices predict workplace injury rates. The practices were: systematic selection (when firms pre-determine critical skills and attributes for success and apply them when hiring employees); extensive training; performance appraisal; high relative compensation; and empowerment.  

What did the study find?

• Higher empowerment is related to lower injury rates.

• Systematic selection, extensive training, performance appraisal and high relative compensation are not associated with injury rates. 

How was the study designed?

Data was gathered from 49 single-site manufacturers throughout the U.K. To assess the use of HRM practices, a team of researchers interviewed senior managers responsible for each practice. They also toured the facilities and interviewed shop-floor employees and reviewed training schedules and other written documents. Injury data was collected from the Health and Safety Executive, an independent U.K. workplace regulator. 

What do I need to know?

About 1,000 Canadians die each year from work-related accidents, and there are more than 270,000 accepted compensation claims for lost time due to a work-related injury. In most jurisdictions in Canada, these figures are on the rise.  

The researchers say there is merit in going beyond traditional occupational health and safety management systems to understand how more general HRM practices can improve workplace safety.

For the typical organization, a good place to start is autonomous work. That means ensuring employees can take part in decision-making, either through self-managing teams, quality circles or similar arrangements, and can use their discretion when completing tasks. That also requires supervisors to be given leadership training to support an autonomous work environment. 

When people have greater say over their work, they are better able to manage changes in job demands and potentially prevent injury. They are also more motivated to learn and develop their expertise. When workers feel empowered, they feel safe to share their safety concerns.

Worker empowerment serves a dual purpose, the researchers say. “Empowerment is the same practice most strongly associated with organizational productivity. Thus, it appears that a key initiative likely to promote safety is consistent with, rather than at odds with, the basic economic need to enhance performance.”

Study TitleHuman Resource Management Practices and Organizational Injury Rates

Authors: Nick Turner (Haskayne School of Business); Julian Barling (Smith School of Business); Jeremy F. Dawson (Sheffield University Management School);  Connie Deng (Haskayne School of Business); Sharon K. Parker (Future of Work Institute); Malcolm G. Patterson (Sheffield University Management School); Chris B. Stride (Sheffield University Management School) 

PublishedJournal of Safety Research (in press)

Smith School of Business

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