Why Workplace Fairness is Critical to Building Safety Culture


Many workplace leaders underline the importance of having a “safety culture”, but beyond the statements, policies and procedures, what are the key elements that make a workplace culture truly safe?

A prerequisite to creating a safety culture is to establish a culture of fairness characterized by respect and dignity for each workplace participant. This is because a culture of safety requires that employees believe they will be treated fairly and are safe to speak up about mistakes or safety risks.  Unintentional errors and unsafe acts will not be punished but used as learning experiences.  Furthermore, reckless or deliberate unsafe acts and unjustifiable risks will be punished.

Unsafe cultures are characterized by the fear of speaking up about safety hazards or risk because of fear of reprimands or sanctions and the related threat to one’s psychological safety. Unsafe workplace cultures also include those that view safety as a cost rather than an investment and where it is understood that productivity and profit are top priority regardless of policy.

When subtle forms of unfairness permeate an organizational culture, they can have an impact upon the psychological safety of workplace participants.  When employees feel unsafe, they will not participate in safety culture—they will keep their heads down. –Tweet This!

A “psychologically safe” workplace is one where every reasonable effort is made to protect the mental health of workers. Psychological safety in these terms is a new floor standard for conduct in the workplace.

 A psychologically safe workplace offers psychological protection to employees.  Psychological protection would be reflected in an employee’s affirmation of the following statements:

  1. My employer is committed to minimizing unnecessary stress at work.
  2. My immediate supervisor cares about my emotional well-being.
  3. My employer makes efforts to prevent harm to employees from harassment, discrimination or violence.
  4. I would describe my workplace as being psychologically healthy.
  5. My employer deals effectively with situations that may threaten or harm employees

(e.g., harassment, discrimination, violence).

At the Workplace Fairness Institute we have had the opportunity to study hundreds of workplaces across Canada and the world.  In our studies, we have found that time and resources spent specifically on engendering a safety culture are wasted unless that energy is first devoted to ensuring that there is fair decision-making and psychological safety for employees.  The concept of reprisal can be quite complicated for most workplace participants.  They know that being branded as “not a good team player” or “not a good fit” will have a material impact on their career aspirations.  They know that disagreeing with a person in a position of power can have serious consequences for them.

There is therefore a tendency to ignore safety issues unless reporting is truly encouraged and promoted as a positive reflection on one’s competence and ability to be a “team player”. Beyond compliance with rules and safety appropriate behaviors, a safety culture can only be achieved through commitment among people to uphold integrity between policy, process, and procedures. Commitment to fairness must cascade from senior executives to front line managers to every individual worker.

In an upcoming series, we seek to explore the relationship between “safety culture”, “workplace fairness” and “psychological safety”.  To the webinar recording please click. We would like your input.  What are your burning questions and issues concerning safety culture? Let us know by responding the following survey:

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Blaine Donais is the author of Workplaces That Work and Engaging Unionized Employees (published by Carswell), and the WFI White Paper on Workplace Conflict Management in Canada, and The Art and Science of Workplace Mediation,  Blaine  performs workplace investigations, workplace restorations, grievance mediations, employment mediations and arbitrations, meeting facilitations and offers consulting services to workplaces across the country.

Ann Morgan is a recognized leader in the field of workplace mental health and psychological health and safety.  Ann has an extensive background in vocational rehabilitation and disability management, having worked in a variety of corporate, government and clinical settings. Throughout her 20+ year career in disability management, Ann has earned a reputation as an expert in resolving barriers to success at work for individuals and teams.


11 thoughts on “Why Workplace Fairness is Critical to Building Safety Culture

  1. I believe a large hindrance to building a strong safety culture is the workforce not feeling it is genuinely safe to speak up about mistakes or safety risks because of the risk of being blamed by their immediate managers.

  2. Afortunadamente la cultura de seguridad hoy en dia se puede ver reflejada en las proyecciones anuales de las compañías líderes y de clase mundial, Sin embargo y lamentablemente las proyecciones no se ven de igual forma en el desarrollo de las mismas, Es lamentable que el objetivo de una empresa se vea dividido por las creencias, cultura, educación e incluso inexperiencia de los líderes inmediatos.

    Pero en fin el camino aún es largo …… Al menos hoy en día, se tiene un camino con matices de OBLIGACIÓN.. ..

    Fortunately the safety culture today can be seen reflected in the annual projections of the leading companies and world-class however, and unfortunately, projections are not equal in development everywhere. Unfortunately, the objective of seeing a company divided by beliefs, culture, education and even inexperience of the immediate leaders are present.

    But finally the road is still long …… At least today, you have a way with shades of OBLIGATION .. ..

    • “Shades of obligation” is a great way to describe the current reality.
      The social and legal landscape is changing (here in Canada and elsewhere) in a way that will make obligation more concrete when it comes to providing psychologically safe (i.e. fair) workplaces.
      There is a new understanding of what “the duty to do no harm” developing in the context of occupational health and safety.

  3. Please send me more information about the National Psychological Health & Safety Standard and its implications for EHS

    • The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. The Standard describes a psychologically healthy and safe workplace as one “that promotes workers’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health, including in negligent, reckless, or intentional ways”.
      In addition to physical health and safety concerns, health and safety committees should now also consider the workplace hazards and safety measures that may impact the psychological health and safety of workers. Ideally this committee would be actively involved throughout the development and implementation of the Psychological Health and Safety Management System.

  4. I still see in Companies what i’d call Spring Cleaning. I still believe some are just covering the bare essentials of what is needed regarding H&S on sites.
    I would expect if you went on a number of sites that belong to the same Construction/Building Company you would find a number of them being of sub standard.
    I also agree with the comments regarding Employees being fearful of bringing up their H&S concerns in fear of repercussions from their Employer.

    Maybe if a portal was created for Employees to access and air their concerns and seek advice from HSE professionals would be a great starting point.

  5. I really liked the way you tied workplace fairness to the culture of safety that most employers are trying to create. I’d never really thought about the ways in which little things like that can affect the extent to which workers will participate in organizational goals though. Psychology is one of those things that I wish I knew more about, so this was an interesting read for me. Thanks for taking the time to walk through some of the basics!

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