The impact of Leadership in Culture of Safety

The impact of Leadership in Culture of Safety

Culture and leadership are the pillars of any organization, influencing strongly both prominent and often overlooked aspects of the organization in question. The aspect of safety culture is normally used to stress the safety of high-hazard systems, such as nuclear, that are impossible to be minimized by technical reliability. Instead, safety is a property to be considered by the whole socio-technical system. In most organizations, the leadership that operates, manufactures, designs, and oversees high-hazard technologies establishes guiding principles and critical drivers of the safety-oriented workplace as they carry out daily activities and make important decisions. The underlying logic of the behavior of an organization, particularly how the company operates concerning safety, can be analyzed and explained by the concept of safety culture promoted by the leadership. Similarly, the development of structures of organizations, daily decision making, socialization of newcomers, and working practices are guided by such cultural patterns.

Successful leadership runs far deeper than merely the appointment of an experienced chief executive

From a safety leadership point of view, it is crucial to note that, in many ways, the organization does not perceive the effect of culture because organization members consider everything that fits the cultural norms to be the normal operation of the business. Such members rarely reflect on the rationale of their thoughts and feelings, and when an occurrence in such a company requires a mutual explanation, the leadership normally provides explanations that suit the members’ assumptions and thoughts. Thus, with regard to the above-mentioned factors, this paper critically explores the impact of leadership in a culture of safety particularly critical for the nuclear sector. Firstly, it defines what safety culture, safety climate, and safety leadership are. It goes further on, addressing the influence of leadership as well as quantifiable elements on the effects of leadership on the culture of safety, including communication, supervision, workload, the well-being of the workforce, employee engagement, and individual impact.

Safety Culture

Essentially, safety culture is considered as the personality of an organization since it is a shared value of safety embodying the extent to which individuals take personal accountability for safety and the value placed on safety in an organization (Borjesson, 2014). As a matter of fact, in the broader culture of an organization, safety culture is just one aspect of it. Notably, in any place where there are groups of individuals working together to attain a common goal, culture forms naturally. At the same time, most people do not perceive organizational culture because most of the time they do not understand the shared assumptions and beliefs that impact their behavior. For instance, when an individual starts working in a new organization, they will try to comprehend the safety practices at the company. At first, training, written rules, and procedures will guide the individual. Moreover, the person will also follow the examples set by their leaders and colleagues. Consequently, one will come to understand the safety culture of the company based on this information and observation (Dusic, 1997). Clearly, this shows that leadership impacts the safety culture of an organization.

Likewise, leadership can develop a positive culture of safety when employees understand the need for safety and establish positive safety behaviors. In the nuclear industry, positive safety behaviors include going through risk assessments for all job positions, as well as reporting all incidents and wearing personal protective equipment. On the other hand, negative safety behaviors consist of ignoring or taking shortcuts when dealing with a safety hazard. Hence, leadership has the responsibility to ensure that the employees exhibit positive safety behaviors (Flintrop, 2017).

Safety Climate

Safety climate can be defined as the perceived value that is placed on safety at a company at a specific point in time (Oedewald, 2015). Hence, according to the experience of workers at a particular time, a safety climate can be thought of as the mood of the organization. It is also crucial to understand that safety climate can change rapidly either on a weekly or daily basis as it is a snapshot of safety at a specific point in time. For instance, implementing a new safety procedure may heighten the safety climate which may result in changes in the underlying culture if it is maintained over time. Safety climate captures employees’ perspectives regarding safety at a particular point in time, thus enabling leaders to measure safety performance. Crucially, safety culture can be measured using team discussions or employing surveys.

Safety Leadership

Safety leaders should demonstrate a strong commitment to safety by inspiring and getting involved with other individuals to provide positive examples portraying positive safety. Essentially, among workers, safety leaders can be found at all levels, from informal leaders, middle managers to senior executives. Equally important, leaders are crucial in any industry because they provide guidance to staff, especially on matters concerning supervision and planning of staff work. At the same time, leaders influence the staff as they motivate them to achieve objectives by leading by example, inspiring and rewarding them. Notably, safety leaders impact other people by inspiring them to have positive attitudes concerning safety by rewarding staff for good safety behaviors as well as establishing a good example of safety. Consequently, as long as safety leaders are consistent, it is possible to impact the safety climate and, over a particular period of time, influence the safety culture.

Therefore, if safety leaders depict a strong commitment to safety, provide positive examples, and motivate staff, the safety climate will improve. Subsequently, if safety leadership keeps making an effort over a particular period of time, individuals will have to reassess their deeply rooted values and beliefs concerning safety, thus providing their own positive impact on the culture of safety. Again, with the actions of safety leaders, it is possible to establish a positive culture leading to better safety performance that will ensure the safety of employees at work.

Safety Culture and Culture for Safety

In general, all organizations that are concerned with nuclear activities share a similar objective of improving and sustaining safety. However, in the understanding of how to work with the culture of an organization in order to foster safety in a positive way, there is still a substantial diversity among organizations. Traditionally, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) applied the safety culture concept (Haage, 2015). However, in February 2016, a central outcome of the International Conference on Human and Organizational Aspect of Assuming Nuclear Safety suggested a change from the theoretical safety culture concept to a more practical one (Oedewald, 2015). According to arguments of practitioners, adopting a ‘culture for safety’ portrays that ‘safety culture’ is not a distinct entity that can easily be separated from or implemented in the culture of an organization (Oedewald, 2015). Instead, in the culture of an organization, safety is an outcome because every aspect of how the members of an organization behave, including the leadership, is influenced by its culture. Hence, forming an organizational culture that is committed to achieving safety is the goal of any organization.

The Impact of Leaders on Safety Culture

Essentially, the systematic delivery of reliable and safe services requires a positive safety culture, improvement, and continuous learning. Thus, effective leaders have the responsibility of supporting this work by identifying the values and objectives of the company, as well as promoting them, especially in nuclear industries. It is necessary for leaders to communicate effectively and clearly to the employees that safety is a key and non-negotiable objective. Similarly, there is a need for leaders to be in a position to precisely articulate the behavioral norms that establish value for the organization, staff, as well as the customer. Furthermore, they should define what crucial behaviors look like in a succinct, simple manner and act in ways that promote and model the required behavioral norms.

In addition, effective leaders can also impact the culture of the organization positively by communicating specific behaviors that establish unacceptable risk models and explain clearly that such behaviors cannot be tolerated in the organization. Such behaviors may include disrespectful or disruptive behaviors. Leaders face a real test when individuals act disrespectfully, as other employees will watch closely to the leaders’ responses, thereby sending a very crucial culture message within the company. Again, this is also an opportunity for the leadership to lay the foundations of strong safety culture by being consistent in holding individuals accountable for their behaviors.

Psychological Safety

Clearly, leadership has the primary responsibility of developing a culture of safety at a company through psychological safety. By definition, psychological safety is an environment in an organization where every person is free to raise a concern regarding any incidence that exposes the organization to risk (Leonard, 2012). Leaders achieve this by respecting every individual, creating a relationship of mutual respect and thus encouraging employees to approach them when they have a problem. In other words, employees will feel psychologically safe to consult leadership. Conversely, when there is a lack of psychological safety, people will feel hesitant to approach leadership. Nuclear industries need to establish psychological safety for their employees, so as to avoid serious and unnecessary injuries happening in such sectors.

Notably, leaders impact psychological safety in several critical ways. In general, individuals with positive perceptions towards treating others with respect, collaboration, as well as working towards one objective, are hired by high-performance safety cultures. As much as there is a need for technical skills, leaders must message the organization’s cultural values coherently.

How Leaders Create a Safety Culture

To begin with, leaders can influence the organization’s culture by establishing a safety culture. This can be accomplished by debriefing and acting upon high-quality safety culture. Notably, an analysis of the broader organizational topics regarding discussing errors, senior leadership, and psychological safety should be carried out (Leonard, 2012). Furthermore, the leaders can message and leverage areas of cultural strength across the organization, so that when workers face issues they can take broad actions on these areas. At the same time, an analysis of the areas with an outstanding performance should also be performed, so as to identify important issues and spread the positive practice to other sectors of the organization.

Another good technique to enhance the safety culture in an organization is the adoption of consistent teamwork behaviors. After all, culture is a regular behavior over time. The leaders should make it clear to the staff that they should begin the day with a huddle or debriefing. Again, good leaders invite other team members to share and benefit from their concerns. This criterion enables the leaders to make themselves approachable and allow others to voice their concerns. Leaders can also impact safety culture by promoting, debriefing, and employing critical language in team behaviors. Critical language denotes a phrase that when uttered requires the team to pause and consider whether they are on the right track. Making it clear that every individual will be treated with respect and can speak up at any time, empowers leaders to effectively influence the use of critical language in an organization.

Organizational fairness

Similarly, leadership can have an impact on organizational fairness by giving support to make it successful. It is well known that human error is pervasive because even complex systems and skilled workers make mistakes. The important thing to know is that there is no harm in discussing such mistakes. Therefore, leaders have the responsibility to form a safe environment to discuss and act in response to such matters and demonstrate the right behaviors for organizational fairness to working. Many adverse events originate from a combination of several factors and the shortcuts are usually the critical factors. Hence, leaders need to know how employees perform their duties in order to effectively manage company operations (Leonard, 2012).

The Influence of Leadership on Safety, Health and Well-being

Namely, areas such as occupational safety and health make the need for management leadership undoubtedly evident. Hence, in these areas leadership needs to implement an effective and functional system of management that employs a structured approach that integrates all possible occupational health and safety aspects. Furthermore, the organization also needs to accept management systems to make them more effective. Likewise, the behavior of leaders also affects the success of occupational safety and health management, particularly informing and transforming visions as well as strategies. Another important notion for leaders to consider is involving workers in the process of implementing occupational health and safety into the strategy, as well as the vision of the company. Equally important, so as to ensure good communication concerning matters of health and safety within the organization, is to consult workers and encourage their participation in creating and maintaining a safe work environment.

Elements of the Impact of Leadership in Culture of Safety

Communication that ensures focus on safety is known as effective safety communication. Effective safety communication is of the utmost importance in establishing a culture of safety within a company. Employees are more willing to receive and give feedback when they regularly communicate among themselves in a respectful and open manner. Moreover, communication fosters coordination and teamwork between groups. It also enables employees to become part of and learn about the safety culture of the company (Smith, 2013). In the absence of clear communication from the leadership, there is a discrepancy between what leaders say and what they do, thereby leading to employees having difficulties in understanding the conflicting messages. As a result, the employees will interpret the behavior of the leaders as the more valid indicator of the priorities and values of the company. If mismatches between informal and formal communication persist, workers develop a cynical view of formal communication, resulting in weakened safety culture and ineffective formal communication from the leadership.

Furthermore, the most effective method of communication to use is top-down, as senior leaders communicate directly with supervisors while supervisors contact their staff. This method assists in developing and reinforcing the power of the supervisor. According to several types of research, employees show a greater desire to talk to their leaders, greater trust in their supervisors, and seem to believe them when they perceive their leaders as having power (Hajaistron, 2015). At the same time, for safe operations and organizational learning, upward communication from employees to leaders, as well as communication between workers is essential. The willingness of a worker to speak up can be influenced strongly by their perception of the level of leadership’s support for safety. Barriers to upward communication may also exist, such as misconceptions that leadership is resistant to crucial feedback, fear of developing interpersonal conflict, and fear of retaliation. Such barriers can cause a negative impact on ultimate safe performance, exchange of information and organizational learning if unaddressed by the leadership. Therefore, it is necessary for the leaders to develop an environment that accepts both negative and positive feedback, to encourage and support so as to facilitate effective upward communication. All of this will result in the workers feeling free to speak up anytime there is an issue.


Notably, the organization’s productivity, quality, and safety culture are reflected by the ability of a supervisor to positively influence behavior, lead, and manage regulatory compliance. The direct link between upper-level management and the workforce are the supervisors. Direct supervisors heavily impact the employees’ engagement levels regarding their job in general (Misch, 2015). Similarly, coaching supervisors is also an effective intervention as their position is of significant influence. Therefore, improving their skills directly influences the workplace because they have direct contact with workers every day. After training, supervisors are in a unique position to implement the value of their newly acquired skills immediately, thus leading to overall improvements in the safety culture. Furthermore, employees gain an understanding of the priority of safety in the company by carefully observing supervisors. Hence, the supervisors set a level of expectations for safety efforts that normally facilitates sustainable results by depicting the importance of safety through effective and constant coaching.

It is also crucial to understand that the ability of an organization to keep safety incidents to a minimum depends on how supervisors approach certain factors. Some of the factors that reduce safety incidents include observing safety rules, shutting down unsafe work conditions, employing corrective measures in the event of an unsafe condition, a clear demonstration of concerns by the supervisors, and provision of adequate safety training by the organization. In addition, supervisors need skills to make them effective safety coaches. Such skills are basic and assist in enhancing performance sectors even beyond safety. Essentially, there are two main aspects of supervisors’ skills, counseling, and coaching. The former assists in solving performance problems when they occur in spite of coaching, while the latter leads to good performance, as well as preventing problems.


According to Everly and Girdano, the workload is a situation where employees have the duty to accomplish a specific task within a particular time limit (Agnes, 2016). The workers’ ability to face workloads is reflected through the number of complaints arising, provided that the workload does not exceed their ability to accomplish the assigned task. On the other hand, stress can be triggered by excessive or too little workload. Notably, there are qualitative workloads and quantitative workloads. The former occurs when employees feel unable to accomplish a specific task, or when the potential or skills of the workforce are not employed in the assigned task. The latter happens when too many tasks are allocated to the workers. The combination of excessive qualitative and quantitative workload is also another category of workload.

In particular, the working condition is an element that leads to excessive quantitative workload. In other words, all tasks should be accomplished carefully and accurately within the shortest time possible. At the same time, the quantitative excess burden of work is a consequence of any errors resulting from time pressure. Furthermore, the psychological well-being of a worker can be affected by a quantitatively small workload. Again, a lot of repetition in a simple job will make the work monotonous and tedious, leading to reduced attention. Consequently, reduced attention to workers will make them fail to act appropriately. Therefore, workload clearly plays a key role in safety outcomes in an organization.

Well-Being of the Workforce

In the current workplace, the well-being of employees is an increasingly necessary and relevant consideration. Well-being ultimately concerns personal happiness at its simplest level. That is, feeling good and working healthily and safely (Krause, 2015). Thus, well-being is a significant aspect of people’s careers and work because it impacts individuals’ core life needs. Equally important, safety can be a top priority in cultures that foster production quality and workers’ well-being. Leadership has the responsibility of addressing, as well as portraying a set of principles that promote and support the workforce’s well-being. As a matter of fact, the employee’s well-being has a significant impact on the performance, productivity, and safety outcomes of an organization (Smith, 2013).

According to a study from Safe Work Australia, psychological stress including depression, sadness, and anxiety causes reduced productivity, high levels of absenteeism as well as low work quality (Krause, 2015). Interestingly, some of these concerns can be offset by focusing on the well-being of employees. Generally, when an organization involves employees in the culture and future of the company, it makes them feel engaged and has a sense of purpose for their jobs. Such workers create great relationships with other workers. Leadership can influence and achieve employee well-being by viewing it as an office-wide initiative rather than an individual concern. Indeed, an organization with a strong culture fosters greater engagement, collaboration, and communication across all company levels enabling the workers to enjoy the workplace. More importantly, the key driver of business outcomes is the culture of the company.

Employee Engagement

In an organization, employee engagement breathes life into the process of safety and enables the accomplishment of company goals. Engaging employees throughout the organization creates a culture where individuals go longer periods of time without incidents or injuries. It is also understandable that employees who are engaged have high chances of being absorbed and involved in their work (Carnegie, 2012). Conversely, employees are more likely to make mistakes and be less focused on their work when they are not engaged. Thus, employee engagement has significant implications, particularly in nuclear industries where safety is a crucial factor.

Interestingly, extensive research has been done concerning the relation between safety outcomes and employee engagement. According to Harter meta-analysis, the most engaged companies in health settings have very few incidents compared to less engaged organizations (Carnegie, 2012). In addition, engaged employees are likely to show initiative to implement, as well as suggest an improvement to safety systems. Evidently, employee engagement gives the workers a greater sense of ownership in the roles they undertake, as well as increases the chance of such workers to take the responsibility of acting on potential problems. Likewise, it is also known that behavior and performance are driven by attitudes. Subsequently, it has been approximated that seventy percent (70%) of workplace accidents are the result of unsafe behaviors (Carnegie, 2012).

Evidently, studies have depicted that employee engagement motivates employees to work safely while non-engaged employees are normally less motivated (Brooks, 2016). As a result, employees’ focus on doing the right thing is reduced. Notably, when safety incidents occur, there are both financial and human costs. Although it is possible to put a price on safety, the human cost cannot be measured easily. Hence there is a need for the leadership to communicate positively, recognize, trust, and engage their employees in creating a proactive workforce in order to reduce safety incidents, improve performance, as well as the general growth of the organization.

Individual Impact

Essentially, individual impact concerns employee empowerment in a way that every worker is in a position to understand how the success of an organization depends on their individual job and that the objectives of their groups are also consistent with the overall strategy of the organization (Smith, 2013). Therefore, employee empowerment is a crucial and powerful strategy that, when used properly by leadership, can energize the safety culture of a company, positively influence the experience of customers, as well as increase profitability. Yet, many companies encounter frustrated teams and individuals because of failing to empower them adequately.

Finally, empowerment means giving workers the authority and freedom to adapt and respond in real-time with effective solutions that assist the normal operation of the business (French, 2016). At the same time, empowerment requires the leadership to share power, information, and resources to enable the employees to solve problems by making decisions on the spot. Furthermore, organizations need to know the internal influence that empowering workers can have on the culture, particularly on a customer-centric culture.

In reality, employee empowerment influences the culture of an organization in different ways. Firstly, empowered companies are more profitable than non-empowered companies because empowerment is consistent with financial success. Subsequently, profitability correlates with culture in a way that being unprofitable usually assures a disempowering and unpleasant culture. Furthermore, empowered employees are generally more satisfied with their jobs. As a matter of fact, empowering employees gives the workers more autonomy and makes them aware that they are trusted to make decisions resulting in a rise in employee satisfaction. Moreover, workers who are empowered have pride in their work as the endowed authority and trust contribute to a greater feeling of pride in the employees’ workplace as well as their work (Shaw, 2010). Subsequently, employees who are proud of their organization demonstrate a perception of being more satisfied and engaged in their work. Clearly, this means that engaging employees leads to all the advantages which seem to follow a workforce that is highly satisfied: increased productivity, less turnover, and better teamwork. Thus, every level of leadership needs to instill a culture of empowerment. One thing to keep in mind is that empowerment, like everything, has its limits. Hence, it should be implemented strategically and with an eye towards reward and risk so that the culture of the organization benefits.


In summary, leadership plays an important role in ensuring the culture of safety in an organization. The safety climate of an organization can be achieved when safety leaders demonstrate a strong commitment to safety, depict positive examples of safety, as well as motivate workers. Subsequently, a positive effect on the culture of safety can be achieved by sustaining the efforts of safety leadership over a continuous period of time, causing employees to value safety and leading to a positive effect on the safety culture. At the same time, leadership needs to consider methods that promote safety by employing quantifiable elements such as communication, employee empowerment, the well-being of the workforce, employee engagement, supervision, and workload so as to create an incident-free workplace. Finally, it is widely acknowledged that leaders can exercise influence over employees at the same time setting the workers apart from others if they possess remarkable leadership qualities.


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Paul Lalovich
Paul Lalovich
Organizational Effectiveness and Strategy Execution Practice