Perception Surveys: Their Importance and Role in Safety Performance

Why Perception Surveys Are Conducted

Perception surveys are most often used when one is trying to find out how people understand or feel about their situations or environments. They are used to assess needs, answer questions, solve problems, establish baselines, analyze trends, and select goals. Surveys reveal what exists, in what amount, and in what context.

The two main reasons why companies conduct surveys are to get feedback on past/current performance and/or to obtain information for future direction. However, they can be used far beyond just a way to gather information. They can:

• Identify gaps and provide recommendations to rectify between what is said and what is actually practiced
• Highlight differences between management and employees, realizing that the larger the gap, the greater the problem
• Provide an opportunity to connect and interact with employees
• Identify gaps between company’s goals and its actual policies
• Serve as internal benchmarks, a measurable and quite useful means for companies to follow its own trends and progress
• Determine where current programs work and where they fall short
• Be an operational tool because responses from employees can really drive action
• Make employees feel that management does care what they have to say
• Encourage employees to provide feedback to management, thereby getting a sense of their role as part of the business aspects of organizations
• Encourage open communication among various organizational layers

Since almost all major companies and industries are conducting surveys, it is all the more important that companies be confident that the survey chosen will provide responses that will be useful to its operation. In other words, the survey must be reliable and validated.

In order to get everyone thinking and talking about safety in the same way, it is necessary that perception surveys be conducted at all levels in a company. That is the only way true communication can begin.

What Are Perceptions?

Perceptions are the way people organize and interpret their sensory input, or what they see and hear, and call it reality. Perceptions give meaning to a person’s environment and make sense of the world. Perceptions are important because people’s behaviors are based on their perception of what reality is. Therefore, employees’ perceptions of their organizations become the basis on which they behave while at work.

Individuals’ perceptions can be vastly different. These differences can be due to
various life experiences, levels of education, and personal factors such as attitudes, interests, and motives. Therefore, by definition, individuals’ perceptions are neither right nor wrong.

In an organization, the individuals’ occupations or positions can further influence these perceptions. For example, the persons in various employment categories may perceive the same process, such as safety, totally differently:

• Safety professionals
• Labor Relations
• Managers
• Supervisors
• Operations
• Employees
• Human Resources

Therefore, one of the major goals of a perception survey is to align the perception of safety along the same lines for all organizational members.

Differences in Perceptions Surveys

In order to be successful, it is imperative that a perception survey must be both reliable and valid.

Reliability means that results obtained will be the same if repeated with the same people the following day, the answers to questions are of the same quality no matter where they are asked, and that several questions measure a single concept.

Validity means that the instrument measures what it is supposed to measure, that all questions are accurately measuring the concepts they are intending to measure, and that every question relates directly and statistically to safety. In other words, the right questions are being asked to obtain meaningful usable responses to increase safety performance.

Therefore, if you decide to use a survey in your company, you should be aware of what the survey is based on and why each question is asked. With a scientifically validated survey there are reasons for asking specific questions because each question is scientifically and statistically related to safety performance. The desired responses related to high safety performance are already known. This fact allows for developing policies and programs, as well as formulating action plans, based on scientific data. As a result, the survey will be predictive as well as descriptive. The desired mode of action can then be directed accordingly and the ongoing problems that chip away at productivity and profits - such as poor safety performance - can be improved or eliminated.

The term "culture" has now come into its own and many non-experts are rushing to take advantage of its popularity, including administering surveys which lack both reliability and validity. Therefore, one should be very careful when choosing a survey because as good as a survey may look or sound (“face validity”), unless there's a solid scientific foundation, companies will end up expending needless time, effort, and resources.

There has also been a recent movement in do-it-yourself or in-house surveys. However, these assessments will generally not be successful because the responses to the questions may be ambiguous and open to interpretation because they are not scientifically evidence-based and lack any basis in theory or in fact.

Validated vs. Non-Validated Surveys

Validated Surveys

• Predictive as well as descriptive
• Responses for optimal safety performance already known
• Responses are valid because every question asked is scientifically and statistically related to safety performance
• Lead to decision making based on real and meaningful data
• Can increase safety performance
• Integrating safety into the entire company. Treating safety in isolation – the piecemeal approach - does not work
• Discovering where the basic issues are, not just treating symptoms
• Communicating the safety message corporate-wide
• Resolving misunderstandings and miscommunication
• Defining better measurements of safety performance
• Crafting policies and programs and formulating action plans based on scientific data
• Defining upper management's role in the safety process
• Giving management a blueprint for action
• Helping to meet the company's goals
• Showing the company how to do better through identifying both strengths and areas needing attention

Non-Validated Surveys

• Generally not scientific (no research base)
• Respondent over-rater bias (anonymity and confidentiality may be compromised because employees feel like the boss is there)
• Self- selection (with volunteerism)
• Often many questions are related to employee behavior
• Tend to zero in on specific safety problems without a global (company- or facility-wide) perspective
• Focus on what is going on, not where the company is going
• No predictive ability
• Look only at safety program, not at the safety process
• No guarantee of what the survey results mean
• Only supposition and conjecture with results; subjective appraisal only
• Generally statistics stop at averages; more sophisticated tests are not conducted
• Essentially a waste of the company's time, effort, and money
• Resulting decisions are not based upon evidence-based data
• “Face validity” (looks good)
• Misinterpreting meaning of results

Perception Survey Administration and Analysis

Administration and conduction of the survey is crucial. Confidentiality and anonymity must be absolutely guaranteed. Otherwise, respondents will not be honest and the survey results will be essentially useless. It is only with the assurance of anonymity and confidentiality that employees will feel safe responding to questions truthfully. No one in the company should be able to identify the respondents or how individual employees have responded. People have to trust whoever is administering the survey to be assured that their identities will be protected. That is the only way they will give honest answers. Many employees seem to have a perceived lack of confidentiality with online surveys. Therefore, even though more time-consuming for the administrator of the survey, paper and pencil surveys are highly recommended.

The administration and analysis of the survey by an independent objective third party is strongly advised. This person has no connection with the organization and, therefore, has no knowledge of its personalities, politics, or the company’s history. To further assure employees that all completed survey forms will not be seen by anyone in the company, they should be removed from the premises when the survey administrator leaves.

Another reason for third party objective administration of surveys is that with in-house surveys employees may fear retribution for speaking out against perceived hazards.

Also, in most companies, not every employee is facing the same hazards. A professionally-designed survey will be able to identify, assess, and analyze the issues and concerns of every department and shift far more readily than a survey designed in-house.

Of paramount importance is the fact that the professional administrator of the survey should have the same goal as that of the company: to increase safety and organizational performance. However, unless the perception survey is validated, there is no way the administrator can guarantee that result.

Presentation of Survey Results

The manner in which survey results are presented is paramount for success. If the final results consist only of raw data, do not explain the possible bases for responses, or do not consist of useable data-driven recommendations, they are of no value.

Results should quantitatively and qualitatively address the two elements of safety performance. These two elements include the safety program and the safety process. The safety program deals with regulations and compliance issues. The safety process involves those organizational elements that either help or hinder the safety program. The organizational elements are
the organizational and psychosocial factors of the corporate culture. Therefore, in order to truly
understand and improve an organization's safety performance, both the safety program
and the safety process must be evaluated. The rationale for addressing the compliance and perceived psychological issues simultaneously is because they are interrelated and interdependent.

Achieving Success with Perception Survey Results

The purpose of the survey is to increase safety performance by responding to the perceptions, or the beliefs, of others.

The perception survey results, with evidence-based recommendations, will give management a blueprint for action. By being committed to increasing safety and organizational performance and by being open to what was previously not known, management will become aware of and recognize how employees are interpreting organizational reality and where there are significant differences between the perceptions of management and employees. Management then has the power to eliminate these distortions. For example, employees may perceive that management pays only lip service to safety. However, if that is not management’s conscious intention, it then knows what it has to address to get its true safety message across.

A perception survey about safety performance should include those elements that have been scientifically demonstrated to be of importance to safety program success. When management becomes more aware of its role in injury and accident prevention, it will not view safety differently from other organizational concerns. As a result, the safety manager will assume his or her true role as an internal safety consultant, recognized as a valuable person with expertise and knowledge, integral to the company’s goal and mission, and who can provide a positive impact to the company’s bottom line.

Judith Erickson

Written by Judith Erickson

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