Keeping employees safe at work extends beyond concerns around physical safety. In fact, when you have a safe work culture, you can create an environment where employees are not only physically safe from illness and injury, but also where employees are protected from unfair treatment. 

When reviewing your internal policies and processes for hiring, pay, and employee development, it makes sense to consider the impact of existing HR practices on the culture you’re trying to build and your commitment to employee safety.

Characteristics of a Safe Work Culture

Most would agree it’s a good idea to have a safe work culture, but it’s important to understand what the term really means. When you build a culture where employees feel safe and supported, you’re doing more than providing personal protective equipment (PPE) or a safety manual. You’re also creating a climate where employees are free from bias or discriminatory behavior and where they can be their true, authentic selves.

Some of the key characteristics of a safe work culture include:

Clear procedures 

When you have detailed procedures to guide the actions of your workforce, there’s less likelihood of employees having to make things up as they go along. According to an Effectory study, employees who have more clarity about their role and the roles of others are 53 percent more efficient at work than employees who experience ambiguity.

With clear procedures, you can prevent behavior that could negatively impact workplace safety. A good example is the hiring process. It’s important to have clear, well-documented procedures for employee background checks and drug testing. This makes it easier to conduct high-quality screening of candidates and reduces your chances of making high-risk hires.

Shared commitment 

When you’re trying to build a specific kind of culture, it takes commitment from the entire workforce. A shared commitment to organizational values translates into action. For example, when employees possess a sense of mutual respect and appreciation, they make an effort to treat each other fairly and to respect each other’s viewpoints, experiences, and ideas.

Communication of vision and expectations

Employees will be more likely to support the development of a safe work culture when they have a clear understanding of the end-goal and how they can personally support it. When organizational leaders communicate the vision and set expectations for employee behavior, then employees know how to conduct themselves in the workplace.

Employee empowerment 

When employees feel empowered to take action in support of safety in the workplace, they look out for the well-being of their coworkers, patients, and visitors. Empowered employees have the tools to speak up about disturbing behaviors they see or experience. Empowered managers take proactive steps to seek the input of underrepresented voices on their team.

Benefits of a Safe Work Culture

When you take steps to build a culture where all employees feel safe, you can reduce the chances of illness, injury, and malpractice. A safer workplace results in lower costs in the following areas:

  • Employee injuries: Fewer injuries yield fewer employee absences and workers’ compensation claims. One Minnesota hospital implemented a safety culture with training for managers and employees, and they saw a 35 percent reduction in workers’ compensation claims.
  • Lawsuits and fines for non-compliance: Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fines for safety violations can range from $10,000 to over $130,000. A safety culture helps you identify and mitigate risks in the workplace, which can reduce the occurrence of malpractice lawsuits and fines for regulatory non-compliance.

A safe work culture also supports employee productivity. When you create a workplace where employees feel safe from physical, emotional, or psychological harm, they perform better. For example, Google’s four-year study on the effectiveness of teams found the number one factor affecting team performance was psychological safety—the degree to which individuals on the team feel safe to voice their ideas, take risks, and express themselves.

The Role of HR in Building a Culture of Safety

HR professionals often have a broad view of employee attitudes and behaviors in the workplace. As a result, HR is uniquely positioned to implement training and other programs to support the development of a safe work culture. Here are some of the actions you can take to create a work environment where employees, visitors, patients, and others are free from harm:

1. Screen Prospective Hires

One of the best ways to protect your organization from individuals who can threaten the workplace is to avoid hiring them. With a background screening program aimed at helping you make well-informed hiring decisions, you can understand more about who you hire, and you can maintain a safer work environment.

To align your hiring process with your goals for a safe workplace, develop a background screening policy and procedures to guide your background check activities. There are many options available, and they include the following screening activities: 

  • Criminal background checks: Understand the nature of candidate criminal history and how it impacts their hiring prospects.
  • Employment sanctions: Make sure you don’t hire individuals who have been barred from working in your industry.
  • Educational and employment verifications: Adopt a thorough process for verifying employee licensing, education, and past employment, so all new hires meet the requirements for the roles they perform. In an industry such as healthcare, where keeping medical licenses current is critical, you can also benefit from continuous exclusion monitoring to check for employment sanctions and license activity among existing employees.

2. Build safety into leadership development and employee training

Supporting a culture of safety requires helping employees learn which behaviors are expected and then showing them how to meet those expectations. For example, leadership development training helps leaders recognize their role in supporting a safe work culture and teaches them how to protect the people on their team. Training for the entire workforce shows employees the different ways they can play a role in building a safe work culture.

For training to have a lasting effect on employee behavior, it’s a good idea to offer training and reinforcement throughout the year. Some of the topics you can incorporate into your training program include:

  • Understanding unconscious bias
  • Anti-harassment and anti-discrimination 
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Safety awareness

3. Encourage employee participation

Building the kind of culture you desire requires not only the commitment of every employee, but also their involvement. You can help employees feel empowered to act by encouraging employee participation through HR programs.

Take the following steps to keep employees actively involved in supporting your desired culture: 

  • Create opportunities for reporting concerns related to physical safety, harassment, or discrimination. An employee whistleblower line or formal complaint procedure will help to make it easy for employees to raise concerns.
  • Give employees an open forum to share ideas through discussion groups.  
  • Support diversity and inclusion efforts aimed at reducing bias and discrimination, for example, with diversity councils, lunch-and-learn sessions, and mentoring.


4. Regularly review hiring and other HR processes

Periodic reviews of your existing processes and programs keep the momentum going and help to reinforce the steps you’ve already taken to build a safe work culture. For example, when you audit your background screening program, you can identify new laws and best practices for protecting the workplace from individuals who could harm employees, patients, and others. Similarly, a review of your existing pay practices helps you stay current with evolving pay equity laws. Following a review, you can identify additional HR programs and training to support workforce learning and commitment to safety.  

Conducting an audit is the best way to assess your entire background screening  program. Don’t know where to start? We can help>>>

A Culture of Safety Benefits Everyone

Creating an environment of emotional and psychological safety is just as important as keeping employees safe from physical harm. Since the workplace is also a place for visitors, customers, and patients, prioritizing safety protects just about everyone who comes in contact with your organization. 

An excellent place to start is the beginning of the employee lifecycle. When you fortify your hiring process with comprehensive background screening services, you can become better-informed about the individuals joining your workplace. From there, a range of HR programs and training can help you keep your workforce committed to achieving safety for all.

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