Designing for Health and Safety

An Interview with Prof. Nick Turner, Queen’s School of Business
Organization Development

Christina Sutcliffe, Queen’s IRC Research Associate, chats with Prof. Nick Turner of Queen’s School of Business on the link between organizational design and health and safety

“You can’t direct people into perfection; you can only engage them enough so that they want to do perfect work” —Margaret Wheatley, consultant, author, and President of The Berkana Institute

The truth so aptly expressed by Margaret Wheatley was the crux of it. “It” was the epiphany I experienced in understanding the relationship between organization development and occupational safety, between an organization’s culture and people’s want and commitment to work safely.

Where did employees derive this ‘want’ to do their job well? Years ago sitting in my office on the plant floor where I worked as a health and safety specialist, I was visited by employees who wanted to vent about the company’s vacation policy, or the benefits policy, or the non-existent personal days. In the same visit, they would also show me pictures of their grandchildren, or describe the new recipe they found to cut calories because they did not have the time or the energy to go to the gym after working a physically demanding job.

Clearly most of these discussions were about their desire for a well-balanced life, which employees recognized as being heavily influenced by the quality of their work life. The issues they were most anxious to discuss related to the company’s organizational structure, leadership issues, and employee compensation. Even when health and safety was the focus of discussion, the conversation twisted and turned back towards these umbrella issues.

So why wasn’t I in HR creating ingenuous ways to enhance employee safety through strategic HR initiatives? For one, my thinking had not evolved to allow for the possibilities of integrating organizational strategies to benefit health and safety outcomes. For another, the HR manager was already juggling a varied assortment of portfolios: organization design, compensation management, organizational learning, recruitment, union organizing. To add the complexity of health and safety seemed too cruel.

While I am no longer working in health and safety, I am still interested in these issues. For fresh insights, I turned to Nick Turner, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s School of Business who specializes in the effects of work design and leadership on employee health and safety. Turner’s research suggests that employee commitment to the organization is a key marker of health and safety outcomes.

You talk about organization commitment being generated by “the presence of work characteristics and practices that enable employees to recognize and work toward organizational goals.” Based on your research, what have you found is the relationship between an employee’s commitment to the organization and workplace safety?

The research that Sharon Parker (Australian Graduate School of Management), Carolyn Axtell (University of Sheffield, UK), and I did suggests that if want to enhance compliance with safety rules, one way of doing it is to enhance employee commitment to the organization. Commitment seems to be enhanced through increasing job autonomy, providing supportive supervision, and enabling high quality communication. These work characteristics and practices have both an instrumental effect and a symbolic effect: If I have the freedom to choose the timing and methods of my job, a supervisor that cares about me, and I’m kept in the loop, then my employer had generated opportunity, motivation, and knowledge to help me work effectively towards the important organizational goal of safety. This sends an important message: it says we trust you, care about you, and believe you have the brains to get the job done. This is a very different approach than forcing me to work to safety rules just because they’re rules.

If one way of achieving commitment and therefore better safety outcomes can be achieved by the implementation of, say, team-based structures, what is the biggest factor that can prevent a team-based structure from taking hold throughout the organization?

I can think of at least two. The first is lack of sustained commitment on part of management to continue the effort and to involve employees in the process of redesigning work. It is very easy for companies to start [a team-based structure] because of fad or fashion but then run out of steam, move the project champion to another position in the company, or to ask employees for their ideas and then do nothing with them. At the beginning of any work redesign, many companies are all pumped up about it: they transfer people from different areas in the company to help, and there is a lot of energy in asking the workforce how best to redesign the work. But then as key people are moved into different positions and the priorities of the company change with the wind, there is a lot of process loss. Ideas are forgotten and momentum to change diminishes.

A second reason work redesign often doesn’t take hold is that a lot of the time team-based structures are perceived as ‘old wine in new bottles.’ Employees often say, “We’ve been working in teams for years, and now they [management] are labelling it as such and it’s supposed to take on some new special significant meaning for us.” Making the commitment in the longer term to ensure that a work redesign such as the introduction of self-managing teams is carried out effectively, as well making sure there is some substance to the redesign and not just managerial re-labelling, are both important for sustainable change.

Increasingly HR practitioners are taking on a more important role in the organization’s strategy. What would be your advice be to someone who experiences a stall in a strategy that is designed to enhance employee commitment?

Autonomous and challenging work, the presence of high-quality leadership, and encouraging information sharing are just a few organizational practices that help to establish trust and respect between management and employees. It is not surprising that these same practices also enhance and motivate people to perform better. We believe that the same practices also enhance safety.

There are two stumbling blocks that I see in the way that strategic HRM gets translated into practice is. First, it can seem like an overwhelming amount of work for an HR person to do, and second there’s little appreciation of the importance of consistency among HR practices. Imagine someone taking a strategic HRM course and thinking at the end “I have to implement all of Pfeffer’s high performing practices to get the benefit for my organization?”

One way of overcoming this stumbling block is to not be afraid to tackle change in small chunks. There is absolutely no way that you can build a high performing work system overnight. And remember to be consistent. By this I mean look carefully for the consistency among organizational practices that are used. For example, you can’t implement self-managing teams if you aren’t prepared to train those involved. Imagine the safety implications of having employees with high levels of autonomy, but no up-to-date knowledge of the equipment they are using. You’d be amazed how many companies treat these HR practices like they are independent pieces of some big pre-designed puzzle. At the end of the day, all of the practices need to be sending the same message: we care about you and we want to help you do great work.


Pfeffer, J. (1998). The human equation: Building profits by putting people first. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press

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