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It's Time to Redefine Our Safety Priorities

By Karoly Ban Matei
Published: December 30, 2022 | Last updated: December 30, 2022 10:27:26
Key Takeaways

Workplace safety tends to emphasize physical risks at the expense of psycho-social hazards. To truly keep workers safe, we have to reconsider these priorities.

Caption: Steel plant workers having a conversation Source: Drazen Zigic / iStock

The vast majority of large organizations have a health and safety department. That can be something of a misnomer, however, since many of those departments focus strictly on physical injuries. They take a black and white approach to safety: as long as you get home with all your limbs and appendages intact, the safety program is a success.

Of course, reducing the rate and severity of physical injuries is an important part of a successful health and safety program. But a program devoted strictly to physical hazards loses sight of the psycho-social hazards that might be present in the workplace, such as stress, burnout, conflicting demands, poor communication and management, harassment, and violence.

These non-physical factors all have very real negative outcomes for both the employees and the organization. They should be addressed in a meaningful fashion, but doing so can require a rethinking of what safety means and where our safety priorities lie.


Psycho-Social Hazards in the Workplace

A 2017 report prepared for the University of Regina found that Manitoba has the highest physical injury rate amongst Canadian provinces (3.2 per 100 full-time employees). However, this number is eclipsed by its psychological injury rate. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, one in five Canadians experience a psychological health problem or illness in any given year.

That is a full 20% of us who suffer a work-related psychological health issue. The real rate is likely higher, since psychological injuries are invisible and often go unreported. The 20% figure also does not take into account the fact that a number of physical injuries are themselves caused by psychological factors like stress and fatigue.

(Learn more about Fatigue at Work - And Why It's Worse Than You Think)

Stress is the largest and all-encompassing component factor for poor psychological health and safety at work. According to CCOHS, workplace stress is responsible for:

You might object that many of these issues are firmly established in the Human Resources territory, not occupational safety. And indeed, the HR department long had a monopoly over these matters. However, take a closer look at these and you'll see that many are safety issues, while others have a sizeable effect on safety.

Let's go over a few of the items from the list again and consider them from a safety perspective:

  • Absenteeism - Completing the same task with smaller personnel leads to fatigue, stress, cutting corners - all of which can lead, in turn, to unplanned events.
  • Turnover - Experienced personnel will be assigned to train new hires, which reduces their own productivity. Attempting to meet their training duties while maintaining their usual level of productivity results in work overload and stress, which can lead to physical or psychological injury. Additionally, it is a well-established fact that new employees are more likely to get hurt due to their lack of experience.
  • Short and long-term disability - The Mental Health Commission of Canada claims that "Mental health is the number one cause of disability claims in Canada.” With most OHS and Workers' Compensation Board jurisdictions now recognizing workplace harassment, violence, and stress as workplace hazards, these are now the responsibility of the safety department.
  • Workplace accidents - Over half of all workplace events could be directly attributed to stress. Despite this, stress is seldom - if ever - highlighted as the root cause of an unplanned event, which underlines our lack of knowledge and resources on the subject.

(Learn more about Violence in the Workplace)

Failing to recognize and address any of these factors will increase the stress load on your employees. And while organizations are often concerned only about the most visible effects of these hazards, the most significant ones are often those that can't be seen. It's the stress that leads to further absenteeism and turnover. It's the psychological burden placed on workers, which can lead to nervous breakdowns, family conflict, early retirement, and suicide. It's the gradual but severe impact on their nervous, musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems.

Source: The Mental Health Commission of CanadaSource: The Mental Health Commission of Canada


The image above illustrates the significance and scope of these effects. It represents the costs of psychologically unsafe work environments - costs that expand reach beyond the boundaries of the workplace itself.

As the fivefold increased risk for certain types of cancer shows, psychologically unsafe workplaces are not only distressing - they can kill. And the worst part is, organizations that don't have anyone on staff qualified to recognize these problems may not even realize the harm they're doing.

(Learn more about Managing Employee Burnout to Reduce Deadly Accidents)

Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Psychological injuries outweigh the number of physical injuries at least by a factor of seven. Because of this, psychologically unsafe workplaces come with substantial costs in the form of absenteeism, turnover, employee assistance programs, disability, and higher incident rates. Creating a psychologically safe workplace, then, is not only the right thing to do but also a competitive advantage and a component of business continuity.

This is easier said than done, however. For one thing, the training provided to safety professionals over the last decades did not emphasize psycho-social factors. Senior-level management are also unlikely to have started their careers with psychological safety on their radar.

Because of this, we can't rely on the commonly accepted framework of the discipline. We have to radically change our approach to safety.

"We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them."
- Albert Einstein

That begins by recognizing that safety is not a fully independent discipline. Rather, it is mostly an outcome of other problems within organizations. Taking on the challenge of psychological safety, however, will require some of that independence. Safety professionals won't be asked to tackle these problems - we will have to take the initiative.

Thankfully, we won't have to reinvent the wheel. While this is no small undertaking, several useful frameworks have emerged in the last decade. I will focus specifically on Guarding Minds @ Work, a system developed by the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMHA) that takes into account not only safety but also self-worth, self-esteem, social justice, autonomy, accomplishment, and belonging. Similarly to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the Guarding Minds framework starts from the premise that meeting these needs will increase employee satisfaction, encourage their involvement, and ultimately create a safer working environment.

To put it more simply, happier employees make for safer workplaces. This means the road to safety is paved not only with toolbox talks and PPE, but also by addressing 13 psycho-social factors at the root of employee dissatisfaction and stress.

1. Psychological Support

A psychologically safe workplace is one where employees feel supported in their struggles and challenges. This means, among other things, having supervisors acknowledge that stress impacts performance and being open to discussing it.

These types of conversations require vulnerability on the part of the employee and knowledge and compassion from the employer. Accepting that an employee might not be up to their usual work tasks on a given day might not come naturally to some people in management positions, but it could be what ensures that the day is carried out without an incident or injury.

2. Organizational Culture

A psychologically safe workplace culture is one that is characterized by trust, honesty, and fairness. It creates the conditions that allow workers to disclose their fears, stress, and struggles without fear of punishment.

In workplaces with this type of culture, company leaders recognize that recalibrating an employee's tasks to fit their current mental abilities is an important step to protecting their wellbeing, increasing productivity, and reducing injuries.

3. Clear Leadership and Expectations

Not knowing what needs to be done, not being sure how their work contributes to the organization, and getting blindsided by unexpected changes are major stressors for employees.

Combating this takes effective leadership. Instead of giving employees a rough idea of what their job involves, the leadership team should provide clear direction on which tasks need to be done and how those tasks should be completed.

For example, a hazard assessment should clearly determine the tasks, hazards, and controls for the task, while at the same time ensuring that those controls are available, practical, and protective. It should not give vague instructions like "pay attention."

(Learn more in What's the Difference Between Safety Leadership and Safety Management?)

4. Civility and Respect

Bullying is a serious and prevalent workplace issue. This is unsurprising, given that cultural attitudes surrounding work encourage us to be the best, get the job done, and do whatever it takes to earn rewards. This can place us in the position of being the bully without realizing it - or worse, without even caring.

We need to counteract this by fostering respect between workers, as well as with customers, clients, and the public. Education about cultural expectations, corporate values, and plain good citizenship can help accomplish this.

(Find out what you can do about it in Workplace Bullying - An Act of War Threatening the Safety of Your Employees)

5. Psychological Competencies and Requirements

Stress is inevitable if the requirements of a job exceed the emotional competencies and cognitive load of the employee performing it. Good, honest, and open communication is needed to ensure that the job is challenging enough to be interesting without overburdening the worker. Employers must also be willing to adjust work tasks in order to achieve that balance.

6. Growth and Development

No one wants to feel stuck and hemmed in by their job. Workers thrive when they are given the opportunity to develop their skills. Ideally, these skills would also help them unlock better assignments or higher positions within the organization.

Company leaders should create a plan for the growth and development of all team members. Otherwise, they will become despondent - or seek out opportunities for growth elsewhere.

7. Recognition and Reward

Every company says they value their employees, but only some of them actually show it. Rewarding employees for their efforts and achievements is one way to ensure they feel valued and see the point in striving for better results.

A word of warning: rewarding the wrong things will get you the wrong outcomes. Handing out rewards for lagging indicators of safety like "no injuries" might seem like a way to motivate employees to work more safely. In reality, it gives them an incentive not to report incidents. Instead, tie rewards to leading indicators like following safe work procedures.

(Find out more in Your Incentives Are Compromising Safety Culture)

8. Involvement and Influence

Too often, we tell employees how their job ought to be done without asking them how they would do it. In safety, the toolbox meeting is often used as an opportunity to remind the team to be careful rather than listen to their suggestions.

Instead, we have to recognize that workers have a great deal of knowledge about the tasks they perform. We should also be giving them a place at the table when discussing work and safety issues, including the design of policies, practices, and procedures.

9. Workload Management

There is only so much an employee can do before they become physically or psychologically overwhelmed. The workload placed on them must not go past that threshold.

If a worker is less productive than another, we should not simply admonish them to work faster or get fired. That only creates more stress and sets them up to fail, since they are already pushed to their limit. Instead, we should look into what is holding the employee back and what it would take to improve their productivity (better equipment, training, a redesign of their workspace).

10. Engagement

Engagement ties together all the other elements discussed so far. Engagement comes naturally in a workplace where employees feel valued, respected, and recognized.

Engagement is not only a catalyst for safety but also productivity. When coupled with psychological safety, it can lead to improved operational processes and better safety performance. It's no wonder, then, that most organizations want to have an engaged workforce. That engagement, however, comes only partly from the employee's side; mostly, it is created by the organization satisfying its employees needs.

11. Balance

I always tell my team that life takes precedence. That doesn't always make me popular with managers, but it's something I sincerely believe. Life doesn't take a break and there are no do-overs for major life events. You can't attend weddings, funerals, and school recitals later - if you miss them, you miss them.

Employees are humans first. Their lives define them more than their work. Not respecting this will lead to workers who are unhappy, stressed, fatigued, and more likely to be injured.

12. Psychological Protection

Employees need to know their psychological safety is ensured. At a fundamental level, this means that they must feel free to say what is on their minds without fear of reprisal.

I have often worked for clients that asked me and my team to sign on to their "Zero Injury Policy" and told us that not agreeing to this philosophy would lead to a split in the road where our interests will diverge. Needless to say, this was detrimental to engagement.

I no longer work with such organizations. In fact, I encourage dissent in my team even when I don't agree with the points expressed. I want to give employees the opportunity to motivate their points of view, rather than ask them to conform to the status quo.

This gives us the opportunity to learn about blindspots or uncover unrelated problems. Being heard is also one of the most important motivators for engagement.

I always tie this to the Zulu greeting, “Sawu Bona.” It translates to "we see you" and elicits a response of "yebo, sawubona" ("yes, we see you too"). Until each party acknowledges the other, there is no way to have an open, constructive conversation.

(Find out about The Real Problem With Zero-Incident Safety Programs)

13. Protection of Physical Safety

We all want to be able to enjoy life after work, and anything that could get in the way of that enjoyment puts additional stress on us. Worrying that we might be hurt, knowing that our work puts us at risk of injury, and being in a workplace that doesn't prioritize physical safety can be harmful to our psychological wellbeing.

Thankfully, addressing the other 12 factors from this list will itself lead to a reduced rate of physical injury. This is one of the reasons we have to think beyond the narrow scope that is so common in workplace safety. Even if we only cared about the physical safety of our workers, protecting it still means taking their psychological safety seriously.

A New Framework for Safety

What I've described above is only one of many new approaches that can improve workplace health and safety. All of them have one thing in common: they take into account the tight interconnection between physical and psychological health.

Mental health is a component of workplace safety that has been understated for so long that it now presents a huge opportunity for improving our safety and performance outcomes - both at an individual and organizational level.

We can all look back at countless decisions that have been detrimental to the psychological safety of our workplaces. As leaders, we have the power and responsibility to correct this record and make things better. No system will be perfect overnight, but we have to start acknowledging the problem and working toward a solution.


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Written by Karoly Ban Matei | HR and Safety Manager

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Karoly has worked at a senior level (both as an employee and a contractor) for organizations in the construction and manufacturing industries. He has a passion for developing and improving health and safety programs.

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