The Psychology of Occupational Safety and Workplace Health Book Summary

The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Occupational Safety and Workplace Health (Wiley-Blackwell Handbooks in Organizational Psychology) By Sharon Clarke, Tahira M. Probst, Frank Guldenmund and Jonathan Passmore.


Millions of employees suffer death and injury each year. Beyond physical injuries, workers worldwide deal with stress and related mental challenges. Safety issues affect all modern economies, costing organizations and societies billions in absenteeism, disengagement, depression and turnover. Chapters by the different authors who contribute to this guidebook echo one common refrain: Help workers stay safe by building a corporate environment, culture and system that prioritizes safety.


  • Globally, workers suffer injury and death by the millions each year.
  • Approaches to workplace safety have evolved dramatically in recent decades.
  • Safety rules and standards don’t work on their own. Encourage mindfulness to reduce risk in the workplace.
  • When the organizational climate and culture support safety, individual conscientiousness improves.
  • People primarily follow the lead of their co-workers when it comes to safety, but good leadership still matters.
  • Long hours, complexity and lack of agency stress workers’ mental health and physical well-being.
  • Employees who take the lead in protecting their mental safety and well-being drive part of the solution.
  • Leaders should undertake concerted efforts to improve their organization’s safety climate.
  • To reduce accidents and improve employee well-being, invest in training, awareness and safety systems.
  • Work plays an outsized role in people’s mental and physical health.
the Psychology of Occupational Safety and Workplace Health book cover

The Psychology of Occupational Safety and Workplace Health Book Summary

Globally, workers suffer injury and death by the millions each year.

As of 2014, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that 2.3 million people worldwide die annually of workplace-related causes and 313 million suffer from non-lethal workplace accidents. Every minute, four workers die from workplace accidents and almost 650 suffer injury. 

Given the enormous associated costs to workers, firms and society, extensive research focuses on employees’ physical and mental well-being.

Approaches to workplace safety have evolved dramatically in recent decades.

Decades of study and improvement throughout the 20th century and beyond improved worker safety significantly, but a blame-the-worker attitude lingers. Traditionally, managers focused narrowly on physical safety. They observed the differences between individual workers’ personalities and attitudes and labeled one person more accident-prone than another.

Despite great efforts to improve safety, accidents and deaths continued. Thus, in recent decades, researchers and organizations have adopted a more holistic, systems-based approach to safety. They work on organizational safety attitudes, rules, processes, climate and culture – and they try to bolster staff members’ attitudes about safety, as well as their psychological well-being.

“41.4% of American employees experience psychological aggression, whereas 6% experience physical aggression at their workplace every year.”

When workers face dangerous conditions and their work demands critical thinking, accidents occur more frequently. High-demand jobs add to workers’ stress and take a mental health toll. Though outright violence is rare, the negative behavior of co-workers – such as bullying, exclusion, sexual harassment and toxic leadership – takes a psychological and physical toll.

Safety rules and standards don’t work on their own. Encourage mindfulness to reduce risk in the workplace.

Leaders should select workers for their propensity for personal safety and their concern for the physical and psychological well-being of others. Workers need to know, internalize and apply safety rules and standards.

“Many believe workplace safety is a state of mind. In recent years, mindfulness has become a targeted area of research in studying workplace safety.”

Know-how and experience matter. Workers with less exposure to accidents are more likely to fall into bad habits through boredom and bias. Most people think bad things will happen to other people, not to them. This demonstrates a short-term bias: People who think like this weigh quick, near-term gains more heavily than the prospect of some risk in the future.

Even if you know that taking a low-risk shortcut 1,000 times creates a good chance of injury, unconscious bias can push that consideration aside in favor of immediately saving time. When people counter such biases by being mindful – paying conscious attention to them – early empirical research demonstrates improved worker safety.

When the organizational climate and culture support safety, individual conscientiousness improves.

A strong link exists between systems-based, organizational efforts at safety and the individual employee’s commitment safe practices. When people suffer burnout or face injury, the organization often bears responsibility for the chain of events leading to an incident.

“Individual safety psychology indicates that employees are predisposed to unsafe behavior.”

To identify safety risks and take countermeasures in hiring and training, organizations must go beyond better equipment, rules and standards to focus on human psychology and personalities. The remaining gap in workplace safety may center on human error. You can resolve it only by reducing the likelihood of mistakes.

People primarily follow the lead of their co-workers when it comes to safety, but good leadership still matters.

Employees take their cues from their peers far more than they take them from their managers or from the company’s policies and procedures. Norms and social influence signal how things get done, including taking safety shortcuts. If most workers take shortcuts, the rest will follow suit.

“People as adaptive organisms adjust their behavior and beliefs to the social context.”

Still, leaders’ actions send powerful signals regarding safety norms at work. Beyond leading by example, managers who include their team members in safety conversations promote psychological safety by encouraging people to talk about and report safety concerns, providing safety resources, and empowering their teams to generate better results. When leaders talk about and practice safety themselves, they demonstrate the seriousness of safety protocols. To improve safety conditions, publicly praise those who engage in safe behavior.

Workers who trust each other, their supervisors and their leaders feel greater responsibility and prove more likely to accept and adhere to safety rules. Leaders who grant autonomy, include workers in decision-making and share knowledge earn trust and realize safety benefits. Trust helps establish and support a climate of safety in which leaders enforce rules that workers follow.

Long hours, complexity and lack of agency stress workers’ mental health and physical well-being.

Flexible schedules and communications technologies permit work to occur– in many cases – anywhere and anytime. Though these new conditions can liberate workers and reduce stress, it can also erode downtime and increase working hours. Remote workers may experience more freedom and autonomy, but isolation and longer work hours take a toll. But overtime itself doesn’t necessarily lead to poor mental health and burnout. A sense of agency – autonomy over the work you do, when you do it and from where – can mitigate the negative effects of long hours.

For workers who have little control over when and where they work, in particular, excess hours cause stress and burnout; but stress can affect anyone. Excess work hours – especially more than 70 hours per week – erode people’s mental and physical health, and their relationships. In extreme cases, stress, burnout and depression caused by overwork lead to death. In Japan, for example, this unfortunate phenomenon occurs frequently enough to have its own word: karoshi – death from overwork.

“Research has illustrated that it is not just the number of work hours that can exert a negative impact on health and well-being, but also the distribution and variability of these work hours.”

Some people want to work long hours, and when that remains their choice, they suffer fewer consequences. Many do so for the money, making their decision less of a choice. In richer nations, for example, people tend to work significantly fewer hours. Where organizations and individuals craft jobs to better suit individual needs, they mitigate the stress of longer hours. A lack of well-being brings adverse psychological consequences, leading to more accidents, less safety and poorer physical health. Improved well-being, conversely, leads to fewer accidents and greater safety.

Employees who take the lead in protecting their mental safety and well-being drive part of the solution.

Autonomy, trust, coaching, feedback and investment in learning promote employee engagement, and, in turn, proactivity.

“Proactivity is…a driving force for individual creativity, innovation, adaptability and flexibility, and hence is crucial for organizations’ success.”

Leaders who understand and subscribe to the dominant theories of human intrinsic motivation know the Self-Determination Theory (SDT). This theory posits that employees need to feel mastery, autonomy and relatedness – that is, social connection. Leaders must hire and promote proactive workers who solve problems, innovate and self-regulate to remain safe. Being proactive fosters self-determination.

Leaders should undertake concerted efforts to improve their organization’s safety climate.

The term “safety climate” refers to the seriousness of a company’s safety protocols and its recognition of the importance of safe practices. The safety climate differs from, but drives a safety culture. Culture is more subjective, but, generally, it refers to how things get done: the organizational norms. 

For example, after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, governments and international bodies began placing greater emphasis on the overall climate and culture of safety in organizations. Safety climate and culture affects employees, teams or groups’ behaviors and decisions.

“Safety leaders and consultants recognize that unsafe or at-risk behavior contributes to most minor and major injuries, and fatalities in the workplace.”

Elements of the safety climate can help predict the likely level of accidents within a given organization. For instance, your firm can focus on workers’ behaviors to reduce accidents and improve safety. Observe how workers take action, and map out their processes and the external elements that influence them. Offer detailed process descriptions and set clear expectations in that context. Strive to simplify work to reduce necessary physical and cognitive effort. Make sure people know and understand the safety procedures that relate to their job and have the skills and physical abilities required to follow them. 

To enhance safety, remove external obstacles, and make safety equipment immediately visible and accessible. Provide feedback to employees on the safety of their behaviors. Institute clear punishments for unsafe practices and administer them without exception. Award and recognize consistent safe practices and behaviors. Study how workers perform safety-related work and follow the scientific method in defining that behavior, observing it, and collecting and analyzing data. Test your interventions, measure their impact, adjust accordingly and proceed to the next intervention. Leverage peer influence and feedback to support your safety climate and culture.

To reduce accidents and improve employee well-being, invest in training, awareness and safety systems.

Craft training that aligns with your safety climate, values and culture. Engage learners with conversations, reflection and interactive programming. Such training in combination with active supervisor involvement – including awareness of employee well-being and appropriate policies and procedures – can counter dangerous attitudes and prevent unsafe norms from taking hold.

“We currently find ourselves in the Third Age of Safety, characterized by a strong focus on the formal organization surrounding safety, the safety management systems.”

A strong safety climate thrives in the presence of formal safety systems that undergird a strong, informal safety culture. Workers on teams with loose safety cultures take unsafe risks. 

In the health care sector, for example, reports about the high number of unnecessary deaths in hospitals in the late 1990s spurred initiatives to create climates and cultures to ensure patient safety. Acknowledging the complex interdependencies of hospitals and clinics, researchers focused on overall systems, including policy makers and internal processes. For instance, physicians had to be open to hearing challenges from nurses and other involved parties.

Every signal and message matters in presenting safety as the highest priority. To nurture a company-wide safety culture, pay attention to individuals, teams and the overall enterprise. When employees believe that corporate leaders, including their supervisors, care about their safety, they are more loyal to the organization and more likely to adhere to its safety policies.

Work plays an outsized role in people’s mental and physical health.

Stress from work affected 40 million people in the European Union alone in 2008 and cost the economy almost 4% of GNP. Uncertainty and the need to make decisions based on incomplete information add to workplace stress. To address uncertainty and meet the need for speedy action, organizations often push decision-making down the ladder, frequently requiring junior leaders to make choices under pressure. This is especially stressful in professional environments, such as health care, that have constant risks and grave consequences for errors. Biases and other pressures combine to make effective risk management vital. In the face of these challenges, senior leaders should act as champions and role models of mental and physical well-being.

“Given the amount of time spent at work, and given a supportive and collegial environment, work has the potential for being one of the best venues for improving one’s mental and physical health.”

Health means more than the absence of injury or illness. Organizations should strive to create an environment in which employees can thrive. Improved job design and work environments – including supportive management, flexible work, adequate resources and policies that target adverse work conditions – can reduce stress, especially when workers participate in designing the solutions.

Help workers maintain their physical health by discouraging smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, and by promoting exercise and better nutrition. Functional wellness programs improve workers’ health and realize a significant return on investment (ROI). The benefits – such as reduced medical insurance costs, fewer worker compensation claims, and less absenteeism and attrition – often combine to generate triple-digit ROI.

About the Authors

Professors Sharon Clarke, Tahira Probst, Frank Guldenmund and Jonathan Passmore teach and coach widely on topics related to psychology and safety.