Accident-Prone: To Be Or Not To Be?

March 21, 2003
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DID YOU KNOW. . . ?

- More than 450,000 fatal heart attacks occur each year.

- 95% of people who suffer a sudden cardiac arrest in the workplace do not survive.

- For every minute that passes without a defibrillation shock, a person's survivability decreases by about 10%.

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Dear Subscriber,

ACCIDENT-PRONE: TO BE OR NOT TO BE?

Imagine two safety and health pros talking:

Don't slam someone as accident-prone!

I saw his file; it was three inches thick.

Don't buy that myth. It's like you're giving up. He's not some hopeless accident waiting to happen.

It's no myth. OSHA logs and incident reports don't lie. You see patterns. The same people with multiple recordables or near-misses. Year after year. They're out there.

Call it accident repetition. And don't make assumptions. Don't psych someone into a repeater mindset.

Ask the nurse who maintains the accident files. She sees the same people again and again.

What, two or three times?

More like ten or twenty. Remember Abbott and Costello? You know, "Who's on first?" and all that. . . Even Lou Costello said 97 percent of accidents happen to three percent of the people. Everybody knows it.

Lou Costello, where'd he get his safety degree from?

Listen, being accident-prone is part of life. Rottweilers are the clumsiest canines, did you know that? They go to the vet most often, say British researchers. Then there are Geminis. They studied accident insurance claims in Australia and discovered Geminis are most likely to have crashes of all the signs. You know Geminis, restless, easily bored, easily frustrated.

You're spending way too much time on that Accident-Prone Anonymous web site.

160,000 car accident insurance claims can't be wrong. Makes sense. Capricorns are least likely to get in accidents. You know Capricorns, patient people. And Poodles are least likely to see the vet. You know Poodles, prim and all that?

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In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we take a new look at a debate that's been around forever. Accident-prone employees: fact or fiction? (The term "accident-prone" was coined in 1918). And whatever the reasons, what can you do about employees with fat accident files?

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TRUTH IN LABELING

The debate continues:

If you label someone accident-prone, you let everyone else off the hook. Maybe managers are setting quotas too high, forcing people to hurry, cut corners. Maybe supervisors are ignoring safety.

No, if someone's not paying attention, they're not paying attention. It's a matter of focus, and being responsible.

But maybe they were never trained to pay attention. Just yelling "Pay attention!" will make them more frustrated. There are practical methods to boost personal control for safety. You can conduct a job safety analysis. Develop a critical behavior checklist, observe, then give feedback.

No, it goes deeper than that. There's research from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology - they identified three key personality traits of accident-prone people.

You can't measure that.

Dependability, agreeableness, and openness are the traits. People who are not dependable or responsible, people who are not agreeable but aggressive, tend to have more accidents. People with high levels of openness tend to be dreamy, and get distracted. You know what happens then. . .

You can't trust personality scales. It only makes matters worse. You get people thinking, "That's the way I am. A born klutz." You're ignoring everything external.

Listen, we're all pre-wired in certain ways. Recent research connects personality traits with genetics.

You're putting everything on the worker. What about the quality of training? Maybe supervisors don't know how to monitor and motivate employees. Maybe they don't care. Maybe the culture stinks. Maybe hazards infect the workplace. Maybe employees haven't been trained in things like eyes on hand, eyes on the path.

You want more data? From the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia - studies over decades show a set of predictors for transportation risks.

You spend too much time surfing the Net. You should get out on the floor more.

First predictor - poor attention shifting. Some people just can't switch from paying attention from one task to another. Second predictor - field dependence. An inability to pick out figures from background. Low intelligence is another predictor.

Stop right there. Accident-proneness comes down to stupidity?

OK, it's a marginal predictor. But "The Hindu", India's national paper, reported the same finding. A survey found that the most frequent traffic rules violators, leading to accidents, were drivers from poor socio-economic backgrounds who were not well educated.

That's ridiculous. Might as well write off whole classes of people.

Let me get back to those predictors. Another is external locus of control. Some people just believe they cannot control what goes on around them, like hazards, so why pay attention to safety? And then there's extroversion. Extroverts are more carefree, impulsive, energetic.

And shy people are safer thanks to their genes? Where's that research?

What do you mean? Type A personalities have always been associated with higher risks of heart disease. And vehicle crashes. They're competitive, ambitious, risk-takers.

Also very focused on their work. Obsessed. Self-assured. Controlling. All which should make them less prone to accidents. You can twist these traits to make any point you want.

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JUST PASSING THROUGH?

You know Peter Sandman, the risk communication expert? He says one reason people don't take safety seriously enough is they're not scared enough. That's the Type A's. And that leads to accidents.

Listen, we're all human. We're all prone to accidents at one time or another. You can't single types out. I know a foreman who made a terrible decision one day. Turns out his 16-year-old daughter had run away from home that morning.

I know where you're coming from. He was distracted by negative affects, psychologists call them. Distress, anguish, anger, maybe rage. When you can't relinquish these affects, you're stuck. And prone to accidents. Healthy people can give up one affect and respond to the next stimuli.

But what that foreman experienced was a passing state of mind. It wasn't a permanent trait. We all have our moments. We all get distracted. Depressed. Stressed. Or so busy we forget things. Folks who get a lot of minor injuries are good, productive workers. They get so busy they forget to watch what they're doing.

Some people only have bad days, not good and bad ones. Give it up. You know folks who are always, always tense, impatient, always in a hurry. These are accident-prone traits, not fleeting states.

You're ignoring the environment. We can be products of an unsafe environment.

No, it goes deeper than that. You hear of the book, "Not by Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life"?

Written by Lou Costello?

By a woman with a lifelong predisposition to calamity. After she was nearly killed when her horse stomped her, she reflected as she recovered. Her life had been filled with carelessness, risk-taking and injuries. The pattern indicated deeper issues bubbling inside that she ignored. A complicated past and home life, a seriously troubled marriage.

Don't get all New-Age on me. So she got in touch with her inner self and stopped the accidents?

No, she started practicing mindfulness. Moment-to-moment awareness.

Sure. I can see everyone on the line practicing Zen while they work. Beats whistling.

Hey, Scott Geller wrote three articles on mindfulness for ISHN. The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School holds workshops on the "Power of Mindfulness in the Workplace." This is for real. The Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers have won championships practicing this stuff. It's focus, focus, focus.

Hmmm. . . Both coached by Phil Jackson. Doesn't he meditate in Montana in the off-season? He's out there. Not exactly Dan Petersen when it comes to safety gurus.

OK, how about coach John Wooden? Won ten championships at UCLA. Old school. Ever hear of his Pyramid of Success? Alertness is one of his building blocks. "Be observing constantly," he said. That's mindfulness.

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EAT A RAISIN

This debate could go on and on. Bottom line, what do we do about accident repetition?

Well, you've got to break through the denial.

Deny what?

Being accident-prone. The woman in her book, Samantha Dunn, denied it for decades. You've got to hit them with the facts, the incident reports, the pattern you've observed. Go out and watch them work. Maybe they don't have the right tools. Maybe it's a poor job design. Maybe they need training.

Exactly. That's what I'm saying - there's a bigger picture to look at than personality labels and Zodiac signs. It can be something tricky, something personal. Like that foreman.

Nothing wrong with gentle questioning. But be careful with the personal stuff.

I know, counseling has its limits. And you can come off blaming the worker. Plus, there are usually a number of factors involved in accident repetition.

But at some point there has got to be personal accountability. Not paying attention is not acceptable behavior. You've got to have consequences. Think your insurance company would say, "It doesn't matter how many accidents you have. We won't jack your rates."

I knew a guy who was terminated after he was caught leaping over a break table. That was after other safety violations, after he had ruined his department's safety record. His own union didn't back him. Sometimes there's no way around discipline.

But all this is about reacting to the repeater. You need to create the right habits, the right focus, to begin with.

Eat a raisin, says Dr. Geller.

Say what?

He said it in an ISHN article. At your next safety meeting, pass raisins around. Ask everyone to close their eyes and very slowly chew on their raisin, paying attention to its shape, its texture and taste.

Sounds like something Phil Jackson would do with the lights out.

You get everyone to slow down to experience the process of eating a raisin. They learn how to intentionally slow down their thinking and to be alert. It teaches the difference between mindful and mindless work practices.

Cognitive safety therapy. I buy that. You get people thinking about what they're doing.

This is only what safety pros have tried to do since the very first safety meeting. Mom tried it, too. Stop and smell the roses, remember? It takes a lot of time and effort to get through to people. Mom never gave up.

We shouldn't either.

But you can't do it on your own, raise awareness, change habits, break the chain of accident repetition. You need coworkers reinforcing each other. Team spirit, another of Coach Wooden's keys to success. Along with loyalty, cooperation, trust, skill (training), self-control, confidence, hard work and enthusiasm. Coach Wooden said there are no short cuts.

You're describing a culture. Cultural values.

That's what it takes to encourage personal control, a habit of self-observation, and the safe kinds of personality states.

Phil Jackson couldn't have said it better.

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Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at djsafe@bellatlantic.net, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.

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WE NEED YOU!

Are you a safety and health pro or a manufacturer or provider of occupational safety and health products or services who enjoys writing?

Shakespeare need not apply, but ISHN is looking for authors to publish short articles (1,000 words) in our monthly issues.

Topics include: safety success stories, close calls and personal experiences, training tips, use of software, engineering controls (machine guards, lockout-tagout), gas detection and air monitoring, confined space safety, personal protective equipment, and OSHA compliance issues.

If any of these topics interest you - or if you have other ideas - e-mail editor Dave Johnson at djsafe@bellatlantic.net

We will also consider articles you've already written but not submitted to any safety magazine.

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