By Emily J. Haas, Ph.D.
A health and safety management system (HSMS) is one of the most effective ways to proactively reduce workplace hazards and minimize the risk of injury or illness occurring on the job. As part of an HSMS process, mining companies are challenged to identify, assess and control risks in the workplace. Although trainings, audits, and individual knowledge and motivation aid in risk identification and mitigation processes, the safety climate, or perceived priority an organization places on safety, can impact worker and work crew awareness, attitudes, and decision making. To put it another way, even the best program can be fallible if a negative safety climate exists.
Specific to mining, the 2013 National Research Council (NRC) report argued that, when it comes to an effective HSMS, considering company safety climate is critical to adequately predict and prevent incidents. That is, if the safety climate improves, an effective execution of an HSMS is more likely. To that end, it is important to understand ways in which mine companies can assess and improve their safety climate.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) sought to better understand mine employee experiences at their respective operations by way of a safety climate survey that was disseminated between February 2016 and March 2018. The purpose, beyond assessing employee perceptions of safety climate, was to identify safety climate indicators that have a significant impact on employee proactivity and compliance to help tailor and implement an HSMS that can reduce and mitigate risks.
NIOSH Survey Background
NIOSH developed a 58-question survey that used a six-point scale, with responses ranging from Strongly Disagree (1) to Strongly Agree (6). Each item related to one of a series of constructs, and responses were used to calculate an average score for each construct. The survey measured 10 constructs ranging from organizational and supervisor support to employees’ assessments of their own tolerance for risk and thoroughness on the job. Each construct was then used to determine significant influences on employee health and safety performance using proactivity and compliance constructs. Paper surveys were administered at mine sites that volunteered to participate, often during annual refresher training or pre-shift safety meetings, and took about 15 minutes for employees to complete.
In total, 2,683 workers — both salaried (22%) and hourly (78%) — at 39 mine sites throughout 17 states completed the survey. Among the 39 mines, the following subsectors were included:
• Coal—358 individuals, 13% of the sample;
• Industrial minerals—907 individuals, 34% of the sample; and
• Stone, sand and gravel—1,418 individuals, 53% of the sample.
Regarding experience in the mining industry, 9.3% of the sample had under one year; 18.2% had 1-5 years; 17.4% had 6-10 years; 15.4% had 11-15 years; 9.5% had 16-20 years; and 30.2% had more than 20 years.
In a survey, initial averages are often calculated to establish a benchmark that can be used to measure improvement. Therefore, in this study, the average was calculated for each of the 10 safety climate constructs (Table 1). A score of 6 represented a higher perception of the construct. In general, most averages were between 4.5 and 5.5, indicating generally positive perceptions.
Next, NIOSH used relative weights regressions to determine which of the 10 safety climate constructs were the most influential on employee proactivity and compliant job performance. The analysis included the ranking of each factor based on its overall contribution to these two outcomes. All 10 safety climate constructs were statistically significant predictors of proactivity and compliance at the p ≤ 0.05 level of significance. For easier interpretation, the rescaled relative weights are presented for each predictor in Table 2, which sum to 100% for each outcome.
Improving Safety Climate Perceptions
By comparing the averages of each construct (Table 1) with the results of their relative contributions to worker performance (Table 2), it is possible to identify primary and secondary areas of focus and maintenance within companies’ HSMS. Figure 1 depicts how the combination of these results map out in a quadrant modeled after former performance research.
Safety Climate Constructs with Low Gain
Organizational support and adaptability had lower averages and demonstrated little support for employee performance. In response to this low impact, these two factors should be considered a lower priority; rather, organizations can first focus their attention on other areas.
Safety Climate Constructs to Maintain
Supervisor support and safety training were perceived as strong constructs among employees but also had little influence over their performance. These two constructs can be monitored for changes in importance over time; however, directing additional attention to these constructs could be considered a waste of resources.
Safety Climate Constructs to Leverage
Thoroughness and coworker communication demonstrated higher perceptions among employees and largely contributed to the proactivity and compliance models. It is important for companies to be consistent within their HSMS practices to support the promotion of these constructs.
Safety Climate Constructs to Address
Supervisor communication, employee engagement, and sense of control revealed low perceptions among employees, but carried a high weight in employee performance and, as a result, should be priorities to address through organizational-level interventions. Additionally, although risk tolerance had a high average, this construct is an emergent state that can quickly change. As a result, it may be beneficial for organizations to continually monitor and improve risk assessment processes due to their high predictive utility for worker performance.
Results of this NIOSH study show intervention areas within an HSMS that, consequently, may improve safety climate perceptions and outcomes. When incorporating any of the suggested practices into an HSMS, it is important to keep in mind that workers’ personal factors had a larger impact on performance. However, these personal factors can be influenced by organizational characteristics such as granting decision-making authority, providing opportunities to use knowledge and skills, and promoting mechanisms to equally participate. Examples are discussed below.
Improving Communication Practices
Supervisor communication has been encouraged as an effective mechanism to enhance workers’ awareness of safety and appropriate response to risks. Employees who participated tended to view the resources or tangible aspects of job support to be higher than supervisors’ intangible contributions such as consistent, frequent and informative communication. These types of communication practices have been analyzed to show what types of information and resources mineworkers prefer on the job, including being visible and engaging in positive monitoring and feedback.
Going Beyond Annual Refresher Training
Perceptions toward training were high, but had minimal weight on workers’ actual job performance. Other research has also shown that using training to address employee compliance is an ineffective use of resources. Therefore, rather than more training, improving the follow-up and communication that takes place when training commences can be considered. Also, mine operations have been successful in improving micro-learning opportunities on the job that further develop soft skills.
Finding Worker Engagement Opportunities
The current results support that training is not an influential predictor of employee performance and that employee engagement is a critical construct to fix; therefore, identifying areas where employee involvement can be improved is important. For instance, seeking employee input before purchasing new or different models of personal protective equipment such as safety glasses or reflective vests, creating and involving hourly employees on different workgroup committees, and improving walkaround communication efforts throughout the day were methods identified by companies participating in the survey.
Monitoring and Addressing Risk Tolerance
Risk tolerance was a significant predictor of workers’ compliance on the job. In general, most operations have mechanisms in place for hazard identification so, rather than build knowledge around hazard recognition and risk perception, more attention should be given to the decision-making process that is influenced based on tolerance for risk. In other words, mineworkers “should be empowered with knowledge, skills and abilities, rather than ‘trained,’ to recognize and mitigate hazards.” An example of such processes has been undertaken by some operations.
The NIOSH survey results revealed a way to advance beyond the findings of previous studies, which have found that, in the absence of empirical data to lean on, HSMS resource allocations are often made based on feeling or intuition. By empirically exploring the ranked importance of safety climate constructs, NIOSH moved the pendulum in the right direction so that mine practitioners can make decisions based on science rather than on guessing or relying on former experience. Practitioners can use the current results to better prioritize actions as implemented via the HSMS to improve outcomes.
Emily J. Haas, Ph.D., is a senior research behavioral scientist for the CDC/NIOSH Pittsburgh Mining Research Division. She can be reached at +1-412-386-4627 or by email at EJHaas@cdc.gov.
Disclaimer: The findings and conclusions in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of NIOSH or CDC. Mention of any company or product does not constitute endorsement by NIOSH.