Assessing safety culture in child welfare: Evidence from Tennessee

Timothy J. Vogus, Michael J. Cull*, Noel E. Hengelbrok, Scott J. Modell, Richard A. Epstein

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


States continue to search for ways to prevent harm to children and families within the child welfare system. Recently, states and researchers alike have looked to other high hazard sectors that have experienced harm-free performance by creating and sustaining a strong safety culture - an organizational focus and priority on safety. Safety culture is enabled by leader actions to prioritize safety (safety climate) and make it safe for employees to take an interpersonal risk (psychological safety). Safety culture is enacted by behaviors for detecting and correcting errors and unexpected events (safety organizing) and recognizing how stress affects work performance (stress recognition). However, despite their conceptual relevance and practical promise for child welfare, these and other safety culture constructs have yet to be subjected to rigorous empirical analysis in child welfare. This study draws on 1719 employees in the state of Tennessee's child welfare system to examine whether safety culture can be reliably and validly measured, can characterize organizations across a state (i.e., employees have shared perceptions of the safety culture), and be linked to relevant outcomes (e.g., employee emotional exhaustion). Our results confirm that components of safety culture can be reliably and validly measured in child welfare, perceptions of culture are shared within each of the Tennessee child welfare system's twelve regions, and that safety culture is generally associated with lower levels of employee emotional exhaustion, but also indicate that there is considerable opportunity for improvement as the levels of safety culture are low relative to other sectors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)94-103
Number of pages10
JournalChildren and Youth Services Review
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016


  • Child welfare
  • High reliability
  • Safety climate
  • Safety culture
  • Safety science

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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