Jason Starke, Ph.D.
Safety Citizenship Behaviors
In his 2009 treatise on the last 30 years of safety climate research, Dov Zohar (2010) called for the next phase of research focus into this concept. Specifically, he stated that while safety climate had been established as leading indicator to positive safety outcomes, it was time for “scientific inquiry in which constructs are being augmented by testing its relationships with antecedents, moderators and mediators, as well as relationships with other established constructs” (Zohar, 2010, p. 1521). In other words, he was calling for research into not only what factors could alter or channel safety climate, but, importantly, also factors that could be a leading indicator to safety climate. In the past decade, research into safety citizenship behaviors has been one answer to that call.
Safety citizenship behaviors stem from the concept of organizational citizenship behaviors (Didla et al., 2009). Organizational citizenship behaviors are those that are not mandated by the organization, but rather are considered actions that are above and beyond what is required performed by the employees (Reader et al., 2017). Likewise, safety citizenship behaviors are voluntary actions taken by the employee to improve safety as well as the efficacy of safety management. Typical safety citizenship behaviors include:
voicing safety concerns
helping co-workers maintain a level of safety (Didla et al., 2009; Li et al., 2020)
These are positive safety behaviors that we would all like to see in our organizations, but how are they fostered?
There is no doubt that leadership has a profound impact on the actions and behaviors of employees in the organization. There are copious amounts of research regarding leadership and leadership approaches, not to mention that leadership development and training is a billion-dollar industry. So the question is, how do leaders foster a climate where safety citizenship behaviors are fostered and encouraged? According to Zohar (2010), the positive relationship between leadership and the safety climate of an organization is explained largely through the leader’s concern for the employees’ welfare. Zohar performed much research on the leadership / safety climate relationship using the transformational and transactional leadership approach. Other research has been performed showing the positive connection between authentic leadership and safety behaviors. However, there is one approach to leadership that truly puts the welfare of the employees at the forefront, which is servant leadership.
While servant leadership is growing in popularity, many have a hard time comprehending the paradox of being both a leader and a servant. That aside, servant leadership has the characteristics of listening, empathy, healing, awareness, and stewardship to name a few (Greenleaf, 1970). Servant leadership is mainly characterized by putting the needs and welfare of the follower above that of the leader’s, which would arguably create the climate Zohar (2010) is referring to that would foster safety citizenship behaviors. Additionally, this approach to leadership has been shown to have a positive relationship with productivity, engagement, and organizational commitment which all help to create a positive organizational climate. Overall, the main idea is leading in a way that lets employees know they matter. By putting their concerns and welfare at the forefront, they are more likely to reciprocate to take care of the organization through engaging in safety citizenship behaviors.
Safety citizenship behaviors are what an organization wants to foster as part of a healthy safety management system. The idea that employees are engaging in identifying issues, partaking in remediation, and calling out unsafe behavior in coworkers is a foundation of safety management. Leading in a way that puts the welfare of employees as a priority is key to helping to develop the climate that fosters safety citizenship behaviors. Leading is not about directing or controlling, but rather influencing individuals to a greater good. The goal of the safety leader then would be to make safety citizens out of the employees.
Didla, S., Mearns, K., & Flin, R. (2009). Safety citizenship behaviour: A proactive approach to risk management. Journal of Risk Research, 12(3–4), 475–483. https://doi.org/10.1080/13669870903041433
Greenleaf, R. K. (1970). The servant as a leader ( an essay). Greenleaf Organization.
Li, M., Zhai, H., Zhang, J., & Meng, X. (2020). Research on the relationship between safety leadership,safety attitude and safety citizenship behavior of railway employees. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(6), 1864. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17061864
Reader, T. W., Mearns, K., Lopes, C., & Kuha, J. (2017). Organizational support for the workforce and employee safety citizenship behaviors: A social exchange relationship. Human Relations, 70(3), 362–385. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726716655863
Zohar, D. (2010). Thirty years of safety climate research: Reflections and future directions. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 42(5), 1517–1522. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aap.2009.12.019