How to Empower Employees to Speak Up For Safety

Aug 27, 2018


Psychological safety is critical to achieving a positive safety culture and minimising unwanted safety behaviours—including underreporting. With a strategic focus on creating trust, security and learning, organisations can empower employees to speak up for safety.

Isaac is using a piece of heavy machinery when he notices it isn’t working like it usually does. Something feels a bit off and it’s louder than usual. He wonders whether he should mention something to his supervisor, but worries that if it ends up being nothing, the team will see him as too incompetent to deal with things himself. He remembers when his mate, James, mentioned something about a different machine in a pre-start last month. Their supervisor shrugged it off and told him to “deal with it and just get on with things”.

Across town at a construction site, Joan notices that a downpour of rain has changed the conditions for cement trucks pulling into site. The first few trucks dumping their loads were fine, but the last driver almost tipped over due to the increasingly unstable condition of the slope. Joan wants to report this incident, but the site is coming under safety review soon and has been incident-free up to this point. She’s concerned that if she makes this report she’ll be labeled as a troublemaker who spoiled her site’s safety bonus.

The workers in both of these scenarios are working in environments that are not only unsafe for themselves and those around them, but also where they don’t feel safe to speak up. A culture where workers are too scared to speak up could be your organisation’s undoing—leading to incidents that could have been prevented, missed opportunities for learning and the deterioration of trust. Instead, organisations should focus on creating a sense of trust, security and learning through fostering a culture of psychological safety.

The Cost of Workers Failing to Speak Up

According to Safe Work Australia, employers are responsible for 19% of incident costs on average—approximately $11.5 billion annually.1 This figure includes loss of productivity from absences, costs of recruitment and retraining, fines and penalties from breaches of regulation, and worker compensation premiums. Even including all of these potential sources of cost, this is only a conservative estimate that includes reportable incidents.

A recent Sentis study of 12,460 workers across 16 companies and 63 sites, has found that 25% of incidents go unreported. Concerningly, in Australia this statistic sits higher at 31%. Some organisations have even higher rates with close to 1 in 2 incidents unreported. Imagine if your organisation fell into this category…

Often, organisations believe that “the big stuff is reported, even if the small stuff is missed”. This can lead to a perception that underreporting isn’t that big of a deal. But the “little things” are actually where organisations bear the majority of the cost and can end up costing the organisation the most, rather than in major incidents where insurance or other means may cover associated costs. It’s clear that consistent reporting of even minor incidents not only leads to opportunities for learning, but also save the organisation money and prevents major incidents from occurring altogether. Addressing underreporting and creating a culture of psychological safety is key to success in any organisation.

The Role of Fear in Safety Reporting

For 37% of the workers in our study, fear was the key reason provided for underreporting. When reading over their specific responses, common themes include:

  • Feeling like a burden or a troublemaker if they were to call out something that they don’t feel comfortable with or to speak up about an issue;
  • Being scared that they will make a blunder if they do something outside of the status quo, which could open them up to ridicule or judgment. This fear also discourages people to contribute new ideas or try something different;
  • Trying to avoid blame so they don’t seem fallible or open themselves up to having “mistakes pinned on them”.

If our employees don’t feel safe to speak up for safety, how can we possibly begin to learn and improve as an organisation? We need to shift the mindset of these employees from a fear mindset to one of trust security and learning. This is where an understanding of psychological safety can help.

What You Could Achieve

Psychological safety can be your organisation’s key to success. Amy Edmondson2 describes psychological safety as a culture where interpersonal trust and mutual respect prevail and all feel comfortable to truly be themselves. Fostering psychological safety can not only lead to an increase in reporting specifically, but also safety improvements more generally. Specifically, psychological safety can lead to a reduction in the unhelpful safety behaviours that you want to minimise, and an increase in the helpful safety behaviours that you want to maximise.

A report prepared for Safe Work Australia by Dollard and colleagues found that even a 10% increase in a climate of psychological safety leads to a 4.5% decrease in workplace bullying and a 4% decrease in workers’ perceived demands or stressors.3

Organisations also stand to gain a lot from fostering psychological safety. Greater levels of psychological safety have been linked to increased performance4, engagement5, learning6, voice and knowledge sharing7, and initiative to innovate, create, and suggest organisational improvements.8 Essentially, workers who feel psychologically safe tend to be more innovative, learn from their mistakes and are motivated to improve their team or company. This focus on learning in the absence of fear or blame and knowledge sharing in the presence of trust and security is key.

How to Achieve Psychological Safety

Ultimately psychological safety boils down to creating a sense of security where people feel confident and comfortable to be themselves and speak their minds, enough trust so that challenging the status quo and pulling one another up is normal, and a focus on learning where people consistently engage in critical thinking to see how things can be done better. Through these things, opportunities for improvement are not over-looked or avoided due to fear.

To increase a focus on learning, employees should be encouraged to focus their efforts on understanding current safety performance and given coaching to help them put in continuous effort to improve this performance into the future. To ensure that these improvements can be shared and put in effect, it is also important to develop skills to effectively communicate to challenge and inform others around them.

However, this focus on learning is difficult to create without a healthy pre-existing level of trust and security. This is where good leadership comes in. Numerous studies present effective leadership as the foundation upon which psychological safety is built.9-12

The troubling thing is that leaders often overestimate their leadership ability and only 24% are perceived to display strong safety leadership. It’s clear there is a real need to invest in leaders’ soft skills. In terms of psychological safety, leaders must work towards building a genuine sense of active care and create opportunities for collaboration where employees are encouraged to take ownership over their work and play an active role in safety decision-making.

Is It Really That Easy?

It can seem like it’s just a simple three-step process of establishing trust, security and learning, and many leaders may feel like they already do these things. But the way in which these strategies are implemented is important to ensure the success of any effort. It is not enough to have the right intentions. In fact, without a clear strategy leaders can do more harm than good, even with the best of intentions.

Well-Intentioned Strategic Choice
Life around the plant is always busy. This means that oftentimes continual coaching conversations that Toni wants to have with her team fall to the wayside. She does make sure to check-in to see if there are any pressing concerns from the team every now and then, though, when she gets a chance. Consistency is key to demonstrating active care. Otherwise, these occasional gestures can seem tokenistic or insincere.This is means that there is a need to consistently role model the behaviours that are needed to foster psychological safety. This means that you need to make the time—not wait for a spare moment to crop-up.
On site, there has been an increasing focus for leaders to make a more active effort to improve communication from the top floor to the shop floor. This focus has been widely shared throughout the organisation, but even after months of effort from leaders, it still seems like the workers are resistant to share their concerns back up the line. There is a need to not only have clear and explicit communication of what is being rolled-out down through all levels, but also why this is happening. It is dangerous to just assume that everyone will know what is going on.Transparent explanations of why changes are made can help to get people on board. This can help to open up a dialogue that works both ways so that workers feel like there is true collaboration.There is also a need to make sure that words are backed with actual action. Talk is cheap. Consistent role modelling can help people to see and experience the why behind the what.
Dennis and his fellow leaders recently underwent training to improve on their reward and recognition of employees. He’s mindful to make sure that he focuses on acknowledging the good work of his crew to help build their confidence and trust in him. In doing so, he does have the tendency to shy away from dealing with any mistakes that he spots. While it is important to focus on recognising all of the good work that happens, this doesn’t mean that you should shy away from mistakes.Everyone is fallible—yourself included. Make sure that your behaviour makes it clear that this fallibility is normal and OK.Don’t shy away from difficult conversations around mistakes—these are your opportunities to role model the learning behaviour that you want your employees to embrace. In doing so, a culture of psychological safety is more likely to grow.

You can see that even with the best of intentions, sometimes trying to achieve a goal without a clear strategy—especially one like creating psychological safety—can be difficult. This might be why some organisations feel like they are putting work in and making changes without seeing any change at all.

How will you make sure that your good intentions are strategic choices that help improve psychological safety in your organisation?


  1. Safe Work Australia. (2015). The cost of work-related injury and illness for Australian employers, workers and the community: 2012-13.
  2. Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
  3. Dollard, M. F., Bailey, T., McLinton, S., Richards, P., McTerman, W., Taylor, A., & Bond, S. (2012). The Australian Workplace Barometer: Report on psychosocial safety climate and worker health in Australia.
  4. Carmeli, A., Tishler, A., & Edmondson, A. C. (2012). CEO relational leadership and strategic decision quality in top management teams: The role of team trust and learning from failure. Strategic Organization, 10(1), 31-54.
  5. Siemsen, E., Roth, A. V., Balasubramanian, S., & Anand, G. (2009). The influence of psychological safety and confidence in knowledge on employee knowledge sharing. Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, 11(3), 429-447.
  6. Bunderson, J. S., & Boumgarden, P. (2010). Structure and learning in self-managed teams: Why “bureaucratic” teams can be better learners. Organization Science, 21(3), 609-624.
  7. Siemsen, E., Roth, A. V., Balasubramanian, S., & Anand, G. (2009). The influence of psychological safety and confidence in knowledge on employee knowledge sharing. Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, 11(3), 429-447.
  8. Baer, M., & Frese, M. (2003). Innovation is not enough: Climates for initiative and psychological safety, process innovations, and firm performance. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 24(1), 45-68; Liang, J., Farh, C. I., & Farh, J. L. (2012). Psychological antecedents of promotive and prohibitive voice: A two-wave examination. Academy of Management Journal, 55(1), 71-92.
  9. Carmeli, A., Reiter-Palmon, R., & Ziv, E. (2010). Inclusive leadership and employee involvement in creative tasks in the workplace: The mediating role of psychological safety. Creativity Research Journal, 22(3), 250–260.
  10. Detert, J. R., & Burris, E. R. (2007). Leadership behavior and employee voice: Is the door really open? Academy of Management Journal, 50(4), 869-884.
  11. Edmondson, A. C., Higgins, M., Singer, S., & Weiner, J. (2016). Understanding psychological safety in health care and education organizations: A comparative perspective. Research in Human Development, 13(1), 65-83.
  12. Walumbwa, F. O., & Schaubroeck, J. (2009). Leader personality traits and employee voice behavior: Mediating roles of ethical leadership and work group psychological safety. Journal of Applied psychology, 94(5), 1275-1286.

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