SHRM Foundation Research
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SHRM Foundation Research


Organizational Safety Climate and Supervisor Safety Enforcement: Multi-level Explorations of the Causes of Accident Under-Reporting 

Funded: December 2011     Completed: October 2013

Tahira M. Probst, Ph.D., Washington State University, Vancouver 

Executive Summary
Each year, more than 3 million U.S. workers are injured on the job representing a rate of approximately 3.5 cases for every 100 full-time equivalent workers. Despite this staggering number, a growing body of research suggests that these figures may actually significantly underestimate the true number of non-fatal occupational injuries due to employee under-reporting of workplace injuries and illnesses (i.e., failing to notify appropriate company officials when a safety incident has occurred). Estimates indicate between 60-80% of all experienced injuries are not captured by the national surveillance system.
The purpose of the project was to investigate: 

  •  the extent of under-reporting of accidents and illnesses in a variety of industry samples; 
  • how organizational safety climate is related to both the number of experienced accidents and the under-reporting of these accidents; 
  • how perceptions of supervisor enforcement of safety policies affect under-reporting; and
  • the extent to which the relationship between supervisor safety leadership and accident underreporting would be influenced by the organizational safety climate.


  • The number of accidents reported by employees to their organization was significantly lower than the actual number of accidents experienced (i.e., under-reporting occurred). Specifically, the average number of reported accidents (1.47 per employee) across organizations was significantly lower than the average number of experienced accidents (3.43 per employee). 
  • Organizational safety climate was significantly related to the number of experienced employee accidents, such that more positive perceptions of the safety climate were related to fewer employee accidents. 
  • Individuals in organizations with a poor safety climate engaged in more accident under-reporting than employees in organizations with more positive safety climates.
  • Employees who indicated low levels of supervisor enforcement of safety policies not only experienced more accidents at work, but also engaged in more under-reporting compared to employees who had stronger supervisor enforcement of safety policies.
  • Among organizations with a poor safety climate, the relationship between supervisor safety enforcement and accident underreporting was stronger. 
  • The highest levels of underreporting occurred among employees who had poor supervisor enforcement and were employed in organizations with a poor safety climate. 
  • There was no relationship between the industry recordable rate and the level of accident underreporting in the participating organizations.  In other words, organizations working in more hazardous industry sectors did not have significantly different levels of underreporting compared to organizations in less hazardous sectors.


What goes unreported goes unfixed; thus, there are significant consequences of accident under-reporting. The results of the current research suggest that safety climate and supervisor enforcement behaviors are both important to determining not only whether employees experience accidents at work, but also whether employees are comfortable bringing safety concerns and incidents to the attention of their supervisor in order to address the root causes of the problem. By demonstrating the link between supervisory behaviors and under-reporting, the current study provides yet another piece of evidence highlighting the importance of developing good leader-employee relations where employees trust their supervisors and feel comfortable reporting unsafe conditions or safety incidents without fear of repercussions. Moreover, they speak to the importance of supervisors providing regular feedback (both positive and negative) in response to observed employee safety behaviors. 
The current results are particularly interesting, however, because they suggest that importance of the supervisor’s safety enforcement may vary depending on the context of the broader organization’s safety climate. Specifically, in the current dataset, in organizations with poor safety climates, greater supervisor enforcement appears to be related to reduced employee underreporting. However, in organizations with positive safety climates, employee underreporting was low regardless of the individual-level of supervisor enforcement. From a practical perspective, this suggests that organization-wide efforts to improve the overall safety climate may be more effective than targeting the enforcement behaviors of individual-level supervisors. 

On the other hand, if the organization’s safety climate is not a positive one, then the extent to which employees accurately report accidents is largely dependent on the enforcement behaviors of their individual supervisors.

These results may benefit human resources and safety professionals within organizations by pinpointing methods of increasing the accuracy of accident reporting, reducing actual safety incidents, and reducing the costs to individuals and organizations that result from under-reporting. This includes demonstrating the importance of: 

  • Designing More Effective Safety Incentive Systems: Many safety incentive programs used in organizations provide rewards to individuals or work groups for being “accident-free”.  Yet, research suggests that this does not reduce accidents, but rather drives them underground. A better understanding of the relationship between safety climate, supervisor enforcement, and accident underreporting allows for more effective design of workplace safety reward programs that actually lead to improved safety outcomes rather than merely fewer reported accidents.  Simply having a supervisor who praised employees for safe behavior and punished for unsafe behavior was related to fewer accidents and lower levels of underreporting. 
  • Understanding the Link between Safety Climate and Accident Under-Reporting: Organizations that conduct a self-assessment of their safety climate can use this knowledge to predict the extent to which they may have significant levels of accident underreporting occurring.
  • Organizational Development of More Effective Organizational Leaders: This research highlights the importance of developing good leader-employee relations where employees trust their supervisors and feel comfortable reporting unsafe conditions or safety incidents without fear of repercussions. Not only does this correlate with fewer injuries, it also correlates with more accurate reporting of such injuries.    

Study Methods 
Hierarchical linear modeling and archival survey data collected from 1379 employees in 35 organizations were used to test the study hypotheses. Together, these organizations represented a wide range of industry sectors, including manufacturing, construction, transportation, mining, pulp and paper processing, health care, food processing, and distribution. The average industry recordable rate of participating organizations was 5.33 (ranging from 2.0 to 12.7), which is higher than the national average across all industries (3.50).

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