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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Testing the waters

Safeguard editor PETER BATEMAN decided to create an online health, safety and wellbeing climate survey. Then he persuaded three organisations to test it. This is what happened.

Is it possible to create a simple but comprehensive employee survey which covers safety, health and wellbeing, which benchmarks participants’ performance against their peers, and is conducted by an independent third party which does not tie the survey to consultancy services?

Eighteen months ago I didn’t know the answer, but I felt the need to find out. So I created my own online survey, ran it past well respected academics, and then trialled it on three quite different organisations. Why? Two reasons. First, people have been talking about organisations having a “safety culture” or “safety climate” for more than ten years now, the assumption being that a good one – however you define it – tends to result in fewer injuries. Second, there is a clear need for better leading indicators so that managers can determine the strengths and weaknesses of how health and safety actually works in their organisation.

In formulating the survey I decided it should cover wellbeing and occupational health, as well as safety. I also decided I wouldn’t look at any other surveys but would devise my own set of questions designed to elicit information which would be of practical use.

I put myself into the shoes of a company director or senior manager. What would I like to know about how my organisation’s people viewed health and safety? What information would give me material to make changes where weaknesses were revealed, or to extend further those practices found to be strengths?

Having drawn up 40 or so questions I invited Professor Tim Bentley from AUT University and Dr David Tappin from Massey University to critique them. They kindly agreed to take a look and made some typically perceptive suggestions to improve some questions and ensure all angles were covered.

Being academics they of course lamented the survey’s lack of statistical rigour which, they said, would limit its usefulness as a source of data for academic research; however they graciously accepted my explanation: the survey had to be as user-friendly as possible because it had to be understood by every kind of worker, including those who left school at 15 or with few qualifications. Particularly that group, because they tend to undertake the riskiest work. It also had to quickly produce clear results that could be easily used by managers to spot weaknesses and make improvements.

Having boiled the survey down to the shortest version possible, and double checked the wording for ease of understanding, the next step was to trial it. At the very least, I’d get a story out of the exercise – hey, you’re reading it! – even if no one ended up finding the survey of much use. On the other hand, if it was found to provide valuable insights then it could even be worth making the survey available to others.

Over several months, between working on Safeguard and other projects, I invited three organisations to trial the Safeguard Climate Survey, each carefully selected to cover three different industry sectors.

Department of Conservation

Mike Massaar, DoC’s safety and wellbeing manager, was keen to take part because he’d tried a similar exercise more than ten years ago as part of his GradDipOSH. He invited participation from a subset of the whole organisation, namely field staff in Otago and Canterbury, and staff in shared services based in Christchurch. Out of around 120 to 130 eligible staff, 91 completed the survey – an excellent response rate.

“It’s exceeded my expectations,” he told me. “There were a lot of very good points made. Overall I’d say it was very successful, and it didn’t take much of my time.”

He was happy to see high responses for the incident and risk reporting questions. (To the question “Within my team I feel comfortable about raising my concerns about a health or safety issue”, 93% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed.) “We’ve made some strides in that area to create an environment where people feel safe to do that.”

He was also happy that many staff have changed their behaviour at home based on health and safety information picked up at work, though the stress self-rating was higher than he would have expected – until he recalled that the survey was conducted only a couple of months after a restructuring.

One weaker point uncovered was staff perceptions of accident investigation, which has prompted him to review how it is done “because we aren’t getting out of it all we could”.

The option for respondents to provide text responses also helped to flesh out the numeric data and will prove useful in pushing through some planned initiatives, including better supporting leadership of health and safety.

“It was a timely exercise because the results show we need to rethink a few things and this is an opportunity to present something to the leaders.”

Mike Massaar: the survey was a timely exercise and an opportunity to present the findings to the leadership.

O-I New Zealand

Fran O’Keefe, health, safety and training manager with O-I New Zealand in Penrose, needed to take a different approach to conducting the survey. With a workforce consisting mostly of factory-based staff, most of whom did not have a company email address, conducting an online survey was going to be a challenge.

We considered printing the survey out and distributing a copy to each person, with a prepaid envelope so they could post the completed form back to me at Safeguard, but instead she came up with the idea of using the computers in the company’s training room. I tweaked the survey parameters so that multiple responses could be sent from the same computer, and over the space of a couple of weeks she randomly invited 50 people to come to the training room and do the survey. They did not belong to a particular department, and respondents ranged from apprentices to managers.

She was pleased with the results, which saw OHS ranked quite highly, with some negative comments which she also welcomed. “You want people to be honest and I think they were. They were happy to have done it and found it easy to work through.”

Some of the text responses, which could be summed up as “less talk, more walk”, she accepted philosophically: “It makes you a bit more grounded”.

She is keen to extend the survey later to all staff. Feedback from respondents was that they don’t see it as the company asking the questions – they perceived it, rightly, as being from Safeguard, viewed as an independent third party with no axe to grind.

Fran O’Keefe: keen to extend the survey to all staff.

AUT University

Mike Salmon, AUT’s health and safety manager, timed the survey to run just before and during a safety and wellbeing week, so that quite a few of the 112 responses had already come in and, after receiving my brief initial analysis, were available for use in seminars as discussion points.

“It was very useful. We worked through some of the results and it got us into some deep wellbeing discussions.”

The timing, he says, was well in advance of the organisation’s strategic health and safety plan in terms of building a safety culture, and yet the response rate – well over a third of the faculty sampled – was pleasing, given a general staff survey had been run not long before.

He took the sample invitation-to-participate email provided by Safeguard, reworked it a little, and had it sent to staff from a senior manager, which he felt worked better than if it had come directly from him wearing his health and safety hat.

The responses were generally positive about safety and wellbeing, though there were “small pockets” of negative responses around workloads and stress, particularly from parts of the faculty which had been going through a significant review, which might have had a bearing on the results. (Survey responses are anonymous but the first section is customisable so that respondents can indicate which branch or department they are from.)

The health and safety committee reviewed the results and was deciding on specific actions to take as a result, and results were to be communicated to staff – which is the quid pro quo of any such staff engagement survey: if an organisation asks its people to give their time to give feedback, the organisation must guarantee that staff will receive a summary of the results and what actions will be taken.

“It’s been a good opportunity for us to listen to our staff and to focus on the issues that are important to them,” he says. “Overall I was really pleased with the survey and want to take it wider within AUT.”

Mike Salmon: the survey was a good opportunity to listen to staff and focus on their issues.


So – three happy customers, as it were. Each of them gained valuable insights about the strengths and weaknesses of their approach to health, safety and wellbeing. Each of them is keen to extend the survey to their entire organisation (and to pay for the privilege). Each of them felt it was also a way of initiating some useful conversations, at every level of the business.

The survey gives a snapshot of an organisation at a particular time and place, but interpreting the numeric results can be a challenge. What is an acceptable result to a particular question? When should you be worried? That’s why the next step for Safeguard is to aggregate survey results in a database so that in receiving a survey report, an organisation would know not only how it performed within itself, but also how it performed against all organisations who have taken part in the survey to date – and in particular, how it performed against organisations in the same broad industry sector.

While the bulk of the questions have to remain unchanged in order to allow this kind of benchmarking, the first section of the survey has to be customised to allow for an organisation’s structure: branches, departments etc. That is part of the initial discussion about how the survey is to be carried out.

The invitation to take part in the survey cannot come directly from Safeguard – we don’t know who your employees or contractors are! It must instead come from a senior person within the organisation, whether the OHS manager or the chief executive or a departmental head. Ethically, the invitation must also include a promise to share a summary of the results with participating staff.

The results are accumulated privately by Safeguard and are in any case anonymous. Text-based responses are edited if required to prevent the identity of the respondent from being inadvertently revealed, before they are released to the organisation as one of a set of standard reports.

The set of reports includes overall numeric data, plus numeric data filtered in various ways: by gender, by department, by role seniority, for example. Anything to assist the organisation to identify areas of strength and weakness.


Given the success with our three trial organisations we have decided we will soon offer the Safeguard Climate Survey commercially, because we see it fitting within Safeguard’s mission to offer the very best information, innovation and inspiration around workplace health and safety.

Having said that, let’s be absolutely clear that we will not be offering health and safety consulting services. That is, we will give you your survey results but we won’t advise you how to interpret them, and we certainly won’t suggest any changes you could make. That’s for the you to work out, with or without the assistance of consultants!

If you are interested in running the survey within your organisation, please contact me in the first instance. My contact details are on page 4.


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