Occupational Safety

Occupational safety and psychological safety go hand in hand

Interview with Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson for the Safety Management Trend Report 2021

7 minutes06/28/2021

Experts responsible for occupational health and safety have a complex responsibility and wide tasks. Are they equally responsible for creating an open and honest working environment? Yes, says Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership at the Havard Business School. That's because it's the only way to create a culture, where errors can benefit the company's safety and productivity. For the Safety Management Trend Report, Quentic asked Amy Edmondson what occupational safety managers should focus on in 2021 and how they can use "psychological safety" to inspire employees to take responsibility for and commit to occupational safety. 

The keys to the kingdom of physical safety

Prof. Edmondson, your research field focuses largely on psychological safety. How would you describe the relation to safety culture?

To me, they go hand in hand. Safety culture is the accumulative expression of safety climate and psychological safety. Safety culture is a bit more robust and enduring. It describes “the way things work around here” and it includes taken-for-granted assumptions about what happens when I speak up with something that might be unpopular or that might make me or someone else look bad. If, over time, in a work environment we find ways to be brave, and direct, and candid, and open, that creates a robust safety culture.  

With focus on enthusiasm

Safety managers around the globe have to wear many hats. They are responsible for the physical safety of their colleagues, their health and well-being and sometimes, also for quality and environmental issues. Now, we’re also bringing psychological aspects into the game. How would you advise managers to deal with this variety of tasks?

Empower! The extent to which EHS managers can empower others to do part of this work for and with them is the extent to which it becomes more manageable and sane. They have to figure out how to truly inspire and engage others to feel a sense of ownership for the safety behavior and the safety record of others. If you can instill that climate of positive peer pressure into the organization, then it's not all on you either to set standards or to figure out ways to enforce standards. It's distributed. 

But where do you start? How do you empower people?

The only thing you can do is act in your current situation and recognize there's always something you can do, even if it's just one colleague whose life you are making better today. If you, for example, want the workplace to have a better safety climate, there are two things you can do: One is, model the behaviors you want to see in others. Speak up about hazards. Ask for help. Just do it. 

The other is: invite others in. How do you do this? It’s simple. Ask questions. Any time you ask a genuine question, and I mean a question where you are hoping for an answer, and then pause long enough to listen, you have impacted the safety climate just a little bit. 

Also, don’t waste your time thinking about the things you cannot affect or change. Don’t think: “Well, I can’t do anything, because THEY won’t change.” Just start with yourself. What can you do? How can you show up differently? What behaviors can you role model that will, even in a small way, make others’ workplace better? 

Encourage employees to participate

So you are saying that if people have the chance to participate in defining safety, they are also more willing to engage in safe behaviors?

Yes, and this is also the point, at which you should measure success in safety. If you only measure sentinel events, you will only see the top of the iceberg. You’re more likely to achieve safety goals if you're willing to track all of the deviations. And this can only be achieved if people feel psychologically safe to speak up about issues. In this regard, one could say that in terms of numbers, the best companies may look less good, because they record more incidents and near-misses. Therefore, success can be measured by how much we're willing to unearth and to talk about those small things. And the more you're talking about the small things, the potential threats and ambiguous threats, the more you're able to avoid the big things. Safety failures. You cannot assume that nothing is going wrong around here. Most work processes are far too complex for that assumption.  The essential question is: are you hearing about them?

Safety Management Trend Report 2021

Prof. Amy Edmondson is one of the eleven international experts who participated in the panel study for the Safety Management Trend Report 2021. You can download the full report here and obtain:

  • New perspectives: Leading experts from eight countries share their estimations of the most important trends and the effects the Coronavirus pandemic has had on occupational safety

  • Valuable experiences: For the first time, the Safety Management Trend Report includes a large survey of professionals throughout Europe

  • A view to the future: What priorities are needed to make occupational safety fit for the future? What should specialists concentrate on now?


Download now!

In your opinion, what should safety managers focus on in 2021?

People! Safety managers in 2021 should be focusing on the development of human resources to be fully able to show up at work, to bring their authentic voice to work. That means caring very much about management skills and leadership skills at the highest and lowest levels of an organization. 

Prof. Amy Edmondson, Interview 2021
Prof. Amy Edmondson
Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School

Amy Edmondson has published numerous books on teaming, leadership, learning, and innovation. Her latest publication, "The Fear-Free Organization: How to Create Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Greater Development, Learning, and Innovation," has been translated into eleven languages.