Safe working: designing safety practices for service sector organizations
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A wide range of practices are adopted by organizations to ensure the safety of their employees. Their purpose is two-fold; they aim to reduce accidents and injuries and they aim to change individual behaviours to encourage safer working practices. Nevertheless, it is often unclear how the adopted practices will deliver these desired objectives. Moreover, the influence of context on the efficacy of particular practices is also unclear. Following a realist synthesis approach of identifying what works for whom in which circumstances and why, we adopted ‘CIMO-logic’ to attempt to address these limitations in our understanding in two ways. First, we conducted a systematic review of the safety literature to identify organizational practices that contributed demonstrably to improved safety outcomes, taking note of contextual details and the proposed explanatory mechanisms identified by the authors of these studies. It was notable that most safety research had been conducted in the energy or manufacturing/process industry sectors, and involved experienced full-time male employees. The focus of these studies was on the safety of frontline workers and their supervisors. Three different explanations were used to indicate how particular practices of supervisors achieved the outcomes of either a reduction in accidents or a change in behaviours of the front-line workers, namely Mintzberg’s standardization of work, Skinner’s operant conditioning, or perspectives on trust. A fourth explanation (Eisenberger’s theory of perceived organizational support) applied to both supervisors and front-line workers and required management involvement. Consequently four distinct design propositions could be advanced that may help to explain why specific practices produce particular outcomes in these defined contexts. Second, we embarked on an empirical investigation of safety practices in service sector organizations, which were almost entirely absent from the earlier empirical studies examined in the preceding literature review. This is despite 80% of the UK workforce working in these environments. Specifically, we targeted retail, office environments and warehouses. We also examined differences in practices and perceptions of safety across the organizational hierarchy, interviewing front-line workers (n=57), team leaders or supervisors (n=52) and managers (n=33). We conducted 143 semi-structured interviews in 13 different organizational locations (1 office, 2 warehouses and 10 retail stores). Four main hazards were commonly reported (trip hazards, slip hazards, manual handing and the use of manual handing equipment), although a further nine were reported by more than 10% of the interviewees. Some hazards appear to be common to more than one context, whereas others are unique to one environment only. There were also hierarchical differences in the emphasis placed on the different hazards. A total of 41 different safety practices were adopted by these organizations. Some like reporting and investigating or training were common to all three environments, while others were specific to particular sectors, for example the extensive observation of practices in retail organizations. Engagement with different practices also varied across the organizational hierarchy and demonstrated some exclusivity. Front-line workers alluded to briefings and focussing on good housekeeping, while supervisors made sure training was up to date and challenged poor practice. Managers referred to many more practices, including reporting, setting procedures and assessing risks. These data allowed us to develop a number of empirically-based design propositions incorporating a range of explanatory mechanisms for ensuring safety in each of the different low hazard contexts in this study. In the offices safety is improved through increasing safety knowledge and by devolving responsibility to an identified individual or group. In the warehouses standardization of working practices and establishing clear expectations promote safety, while in the retail sector greater task competency and regular checking locally create safer working environments. Perceived organizational support and external monitoring (perhaps by headquarters) also encourage safe working in retail and warehouse environments.