The Psychology of Safety: Encouraging Safe Behaviours in the Workplace

Ever wonder why people sometimes take shortcuts, even when they know it could be risky?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals need to understand the psychological aspects that govern workplace safety so they can grasp why employees act—or don’t act—in safe ways.

In this post, we explore the relationship between psychology and workplace safety, delving into the factors that influence employee behaviour and decision making. We also offer tips on how organizations can leverage psychological principles to cultivate a culture of safety and compliance, ultimately fostering a safer and healthier work environment.




Imagine a person is starting their first job, eager to prove themselves. They see a safety guideline—maybe wearing a harness or following a lockout procedure. While logic tells them to follow it, will they always do so?

Our decisions aren’t as simple as following a checklist. Human decision making is a complex dance between intuition and reason. We consider the pros and cons, but a surprising mix of factors influence our final choice.

Maybe this person has never seen an accident, making the risk seem low. Or maybe they feel pressured to meet a deadline, which tempts them to skip a safety step. Their past experiences, their mental health, or even how well-rested they are can tip the scales.

Social context also plays a crucial role in how we make decisions, especially in a group setting like a workplace. Peer influence, cultural norms, and the behaviour of leaders can significantly sway our choices. Emotions like fear or excitement can impact our decision-making process as well.

Construction worker wearing safety harnessPeople don’t always do what they know they should do to stay safe

Psychological Factors Contributing to Unsafe Behaviours

Several psychological factors can influence how someone behaves in regard to safety in the workplace. Here are some of the key ones:

  • Risk perception: Workers might underestimate risks, especially if things have gone smoothly in the past. Or they might become complacent with shortcuts that become normalized over time because they haven’t yet impacted physical safety.
  • Cognitive biases: Availability bias is when people weigh risks based on easily recalled information. If a workplace hasn’t had accidents, workers might downplay the possibility of future ones.
  • Motivation: Feeling pressured to meet deadlines or quotas can incentivize people to cut corners that compromise safety.
  • Social influences: Employees may be more likely to engage in risky behaviour if it’s the norm within their team, even if they find it unsafe. Leaders who fail to demonstrate safe behaviour can also cause a trickle-down effect.
  • Employee well-being: When people are stressed or tired, their judgment can become clouded and they may be more likely to make mistakes or take shortcuts that could lead to accidents. Mental health issues like anxiety or depression can also impact someone’s ability to focus on safety protocols.
  • Psychological safety: If people don’t feel comfortable raising safety concerns out of fear of punishment, known risks may not get addressed.

Role of Emotions in Safety Behaviours

Emotions play a pivotal role in shaping safety behaviours in the workplace. They act as powerful signals that can influence our decisions and actions, sometimes even overriding logic.

Fear and anxiety can actually be positive forces when it comes to safety. Fear of getting hurt can motivate people to be more aware of potential hazards and follow safety guidelines. However, excessive anxiety impacts mental health and can cause people to freeze or lose focus, potentially causing accidents.

Feelings of complacency or boredom can cause employees to underestimate physical safety risks or neglect safety measures.

Stress or anger can impair workers’ judgment and lead to impulsive decisions that compromise safety. People might be more likely to make mistakes, take shortcuts, or ignore safety protocols altogether to meet deadlines or resolve issues quickly.

What’s more, research has found that emotions easily spread through groups, and that humans naturally tend to mimic the feelings and behaviours of the people around them. One unhappy or stressed employee can thus represent a safety hazard to an entire team.

On the other hand, feeling happy, engaged, and valued at work can contribute to a positive safety culture. Employees who feel supported and appreciated are more likely to prioritize safety and follow protocols.



Managers, employees, and training professionals each have a role to play in creating a culture of safety throughout an organization.

Leadership and Management Practices

Leaders set the tone. By following procedures, acting promptly to address hazards, and prioritizing safety in decision making, they send a clear message that safety is valued.

Regular and clear communication about safety expectations, procedures, and the reasons behind certain protocols is essential. This includes not only formal training sessions but also regular safety meetings, updates, and open forums where employees can discuss safety issues without fear of reprisal.

Addressing risk perception means not shying away from discussing potential hazards and near misses. Instead, encourage leaders to openly discuss past incidents. Have them explain why worker input matters and how it will make a difference in the way things are done. Get them to ask open-ended questions and encourage people to raise their concerns to improve team psychological safety.

Establishing a system where safety violations are consistently addressed is crucial. The focus should be on understanding the root cause of the violation and learning from it, rather than just on punitive measures. This creates a culture of learning and continuous improvement.

Leaders can also reinforce positive safety behaviours by recognizing and rewarding employees who consistently follow protocols, identify hazards, or contribute to safety improvements. This can be done through formal recognition programs, performance reviews that include safety as a criterion, or informal acknowledgements in team meetings.

Managers and workers meeting in construction officeA strong safety culture starts with management

Employee Involvement and Empowerment

Empowering employees to actively participate in safety initiatives is crucial for developing a strong and effective safety culture.

Organizations should include employees in safety audits, risk assessments, and the development of safety procedures. This involvement not only provides valuable insights from those on the front lines but also fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility for workplace safety.

OHS professionals can encourage a learning culture rather than a blame culture by implementing non-punitive reporting systems. This approach reduces fear associated with reporting and aligns with the psychological need for a supportive and non-threatening work environment.

Teamwork is key when it comes to managing and improving safety. Safety committees should include representatives from various levels of the organization, including front-line workers. These committees can be tasked with reviewing safety policies, organizing safety training, and coordinating response actions during incidents.

Even aside from the committees, it’s good practice to identify and support enthusiastic individuals within each team who can act as safety champions. They can help motivate their peers and lead by example in everyday operations.

Training and Education

Effective safety training goes beyond lectures and rote memorization. Here are some training and educational approaches that integrate psychological principles:

  • Active learning: Engage employees through simulations, role playing, and interactive workshops. Present participants with realistic workplace scenarios where they have to identify hazards, assess risks, and make safe decisions. Facilitate role-playing sessions that allow employees to practise difficult conversations like refusing an unsafe task or reporting a safety concern.
  • Countering availability bias: Incorporate statistics and data on workplace accidents to counterbalance the “it won’t happen to me” mentality.
  • Gamification: Incorporate game elements like points and badges into safety training. This can boost engagement by tapping into the psychological desire for rewards and competition.
  • Variety of training formats: Offer training modules in different formats, such as interactive workshops, online modules, or video presentations. This caters to diverse learning styles and helps ensure that everyone can absorb the information.
  • Microlearning: Break down safety training into bite-size, easily digestible modules. This improves knowledge retention and makes learning more accessible, especially for people with busy schedules.



New safety measures are often met with resistance. As an OHS professional, you need to anticipate that when creating psychologically safe workplaces and have strategies in place to overcome it.

The first step is getting buy-in from upper management. If leaders don’t support the initiatives or take the attitude of “the safety department is forcing this on us,” you won’t get very far. Leaders should actively participate in training and adhere to the new protocols themselves. Their visible commitment can serve as a powerful motivator for the entire workforce.

To convince reluctant managers, present data on the financial costs of workplace accidents, including workers’ compensation claims, lost productivity, and potential fines. Point out that safety isn’t just about preventing injuries; it’s about good business. Healthy employees are happier employees, and that translates into a better work environment for everyone.

Involving employees in the planning and implementation process can make a world of difference. Get them on board early. Emphasize not just the “how” but the “why” behind safety practices. This fosters a sense of ownership and increases their investment in making the new protocols successful.

Focus on positive reinforcement through recognition programs, incentives for safe practices, and celebrating safety milestones.

Remember: building a culture of safety is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires ongoing effort, leadership commitment, and continuous improvement.



Herzing College offers an occupational health and safety diploma that takes just 12 months to complete and includes an internship for real work experience. The program is approved by the Board of Canadian Registered Safety Professionals (BCRSP). That means our graduates are immediately eligible for national certification, getting them that much closer to creating psychologically safe workplaces.

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