We summarise some of the safety research into the human factors that contribute to accident, incidents and unsafe work behaviours. 

Click on any of the below topics to read more:

Safety Attitudes that lead to unsafe work practices and incidents

The Mullen (2004) research found that the following organisational factors and individual attitudes did influence the occurrence of unsafe work practices and work accidents. 

Organisational Factors

  • Role overload – Perception that one is overloaded to the degree performance is affected.
  • Performance over Safety – Pressure from bosses and peers to get the job done.
  • Socialisation Influences – what is “normal” and acceptable behaviour e.g. the “way we do things around here”.
  • Safety Attitudes – The attitudes of both management and co-workers towards safety.
  • Perceived Risks – underestimating the perceivedRisk taking can affect how safely someone will behave risk of an activity.

Personal Attitudes & Image

  • Macho or tough person syndrome – need to appear tough or macho to the point it inhibits safety behaviour.
  • Competence – Need to seem competent to others.

Avoiding Negative Consequences

  • Teasing and harassment from co-workers –fear of teasing and peer  harassment.
  • Fear of losing a good position – fear of potentially losing a position can then influence them in their safety behaviour. 

 

Cognitive Failure & Conscientiousness

Wallace & Vodanovich (2003) study finding that both Conscientiousness and cognitive failure affected the prevalence of both unsafe work behaviours and workplace accidents. 

Cognitive failure:Cognitive failure and safety

  • Has been described as “a breakdown of cognitive functioning that results in a cognitively based mistake or error in task execution that a person would normally be capable of completing”. 
  • Accidents are often caused by faulty cognitive or attentional processes such as poor selective attention, mental errors, and distractibility.  
  • The results found that people with a higher rate of cognitive failure tended to have higher rates of workplace accidents and unsafe behaviours.
  • Conscientious (one of the big five personality traits) on the other hand was negatively correlated with unsafe work behaviours and accidents.
  • Those people who have both low Conscientious and a high level of cognitive failure had higher rates of both unsafe work behaviours and accidents.

 

High Performance Work Systems & Safety

High Performance Work Systems (HPWS) are human resource management practices that together assist in the recruitment, selection, development, motivation and retention of employees. 

For years research has linked HPWS practices to economic performance of an organisation however, Zacharatos & Barling (2005) found that these practices also improved workplace safety.  

They also proved that the 10 High performance work practices they studied composed a single underlying construct – a high performance work system. 

The 10 Practices were:High performing work systems

  • Selective hiring
  • Employment security
  • Extensive training
  • Teams and decentralised decision-making
  • Reduced status distinctions
  • Information sharing
  • Contingent compensation on safe performance
  • Transformational leadership
  • High-quality work (job enrichment, role clarity & autonomy)
  • Measurement of management practices

 

Six common management practices in safety programmes

Vrenenburgh (2002) studied 6 common management practices in safety programmes that were used to reduce injury rates.  These practices were:

  • Management commitment to create a safety cultureMany different managment practices can impact on safety behaviours
  • Rewarding safe behaviours
  • Communication & feedback on performance
  • Selection of new personnel who are predisposed to displaying a safety conscious attitude to work
  • Training personnel in occupational safety
  • Worker participation and involvement in the development and implementation of workplace safety programmes

Vrenenburgh surveyed risk managers from 62 hospitals about the prevalence of these practices in the workplace and studied their relationship with injury rates. 

He also categorised the practices into proactive practices (those used to prevent injuries in the first place) and reactive practices (those used to fix problems once they occurred).  

His study found most hospitals had reactive practices, however proactive practices reliably predicted injury rates and in particular it was found that the proactive hiring practices could reduce injury rates. 

If the organisation selected employees with good safety records and trained them appropriately then the result was lower injury rates. 

The conclusion was therefore the most effective step to assist in reducing injury rates was to invest in the front-end hiring and training of new personnel. 

 

Fixed term contracts and safety

Guadalupe (2003) studied the link between workplace accidents and fixed term contracts and found that the accident probabilities increase by 5 percentage points for those on fixed term contracts. 

She found that the main reasons for this difference were that people on fixed term contracts tend to have less spent on them in terms of training and other HR initiatives. 

In addition, due to the uncertain nature of fixed term work also can cause workers to increase their effort to ensure they are re-hired, however this increased effort to work faster can then increase workplace accidents.

 

Type A personality, Neuroticism and Safety

A study by Sutherland & Copper (1991) in offshore oil and gas employees found that personality did impact upon the incident of accident involvement and suggested the use of personality assessment in selection to reduce this impact. 

They found:

  • Type A personalities had significantly more accidents though the causation for this was uncertain.  Neuroticism predicts those who will act less safely
  • Neuroticism (N) levels influenced accident involvement with high N scores reporting significantly more accident involvement than low N.  Neuroticism (N) is a measure of Emotional Stability, with high N scores being less emotionally stable.
  • High N scorers also reported more stress and were significantly less satisfied with their jobs, exhibited poor levels of mental well-being and were also more likely to be heavy drinkers – all of these factors could potentially influence accident vulnerability. 

 

Safety and Agreeableness

Clarke (2006) did a meta analysis of the safety literature around safety climate/culture perceptions and attitudes, and personality traits and their relationship to accident involvement. 

They found :

  • Safety perceptions (employee’s perceptions about the value of safety in an organisation) are more predictive of accidents than safety attitudes (employee attitudes towards safety issues). 
  • Evidence that Agreeableness (one of the big five personality measures) was significantly predictive of accident involvement.  The more Agreeable anConscientiousness and safety individual the more likely they would be accident-free.

 

Big Five Personality and Safety

Clarke & Robertson's meta-analysis (2005) found low conscientiousness and low agreeableness being associated with greater accident involvement in work studies. 

They also found extraversion has no significant association with work accidents but it does seem to be a valid and generalizable predictor of traffic accidents.

 

Low impulse control and safety

Reynolds & Schiffbauer (2004) found that those people with low impulse control often discounted the possible negative consequences (e.g. injury) as being an unlikely or an uncertain outcome of acting on an impulse.   

The consequences are discounted or disregard as such consequences are typically uncertain and delayed in nature. They also found some evidence "that certain environmental conditions, such as those that lead to stress or sleep deprivation, may increase discounting".

 

Rule following and safety

Impulse control & rule following impacts on safetyBraithwaite & Grabosky (1995) found that serious violations of rules were either the cause, contributed to the cause, or exacerbated the effect of 33 out of 39 multiple-fatality coalmine disasters, in the US, UK and Australia.  The willingness of employees to follow the rules rather than rebel against them is critical in intrinsically dangerous jobs.

 

Human factors and safety

A study by Paul & Maiti (2007) investigated the how human behavioural factors contributed to work injuries in coalmines.  They found people who described themselves as less emotionally stable, more dissatisfied with the job and more risk taking (from a self assessment) were significantly more likely to have work injuries in the mine studied.

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