If there ever existed a paradox in the safety industry, it is the term “personal safety.” Safety initiatives are anything but personal. All employees receive the same safety training, PPE, and sets of safety rules — all of which are meant to transform them into responsible and safety-conscious individuals. But does this transformation really happen?
Personal safety remains a constant challenge that employees face primarily on their own. How each perceives and responds to workplace exposures, ultimately determines their likelihood of being injured.
The true test
This is the real challenge we safety professionals face: while personal safety is in the interest of all, it is ultimately decided by each employee for himself or herself. In that light, this article explains the innovative research that predicts and improves workers’ personal safety by coming to grips with what drives it in the first place – their unique safety-related characteristics.
We all possess safety-related “DNA” — internal traits — that work to keep us safe. These include:
- Staying in control
- Being aware of surroundings
- Following rules
- Exhibiting caution
It’s an inside job
Most safety initiatives focus on external safety, such as PPE, compliance training, safety rules, and supervisor observations. But the true potential for change and improvement in workers’ safety is to understand what transpires on the inside. Our ability to accurately perceive and evaluate risks ultimately determines our corresponding safety behavior. Examples include how fast we choose to drive on the highway under varying conditions, deciding when to leave for work to avoid rushing, or whether to use a handrail descending steps.
We now have empirical data that demonstrates our safety-related “DNA” strongly predicts safety behavior, including workers’ compensation claims and personal injuries. For instance, research reveals that individuals with a lower ability to perceive and evaluate risks have four times more safety incidents than those with a stronger ability. If we include only serious incidents, the gap is shocking. Low ability profiles are involved in 11 times more serious incidents than individuals with strong internal safety abilities. Injuries do not occur at similar rates; rather, some individuals have significantly more injuries than others .
Just as certain employees are innately more at risk than others – depending on their work environment and hazard exposures -- job tasks too vary in terms of risk. While this seems obvious, what is less obvious is what happens when we overlay a task with the internal safety traits factors. As safety professionals, we should examine a task in terms of an individual’s ability to be in control, be aware of surroundings, respect rules, and exhibit caution. While not all safety factors may come into play at once, they are all important for one’s safety.
For instance, ladder safety requires all four factors, with an emphasis on awareness. An employee with high awareness will climb a ladder with fewer exposures than one with average or low awareness, even though all are performing the same task. By understanding both the person’s internal safety profile and the task risk profile, you get a clearer picture of the exposure an employee experiences completing a specific task.
Keeping the research findings in mind, how can companies operationalize these safety concepts to help employees quickly determine their personal work exposures? Let’s take the complexity out of the psychology-focused research, and focus on a model that employees will quickly understand. To illustrate, consider Tom’s situation.
Tom is a seasoned maintenance mechanic, having had his share of bumps and bruises over the years. Tom’s profile reveals his main risk of injury relates to rules, as he tends to tolerate rules versus respect them. Like Tom, individuals lower in rules justify exceptions to them when rules become inconvenient or when these individuals are unsupervised. Tom agrees he may occasionally bend safety rules when the risk seems low and they are running behind.
Let’s go now to Tom’s work area. There is a safety graphic relating to his tasks which reminds Tom that his safety depends on obtaining a valid work permit before starting a job. The graphic highlights in red the rules to prompt Tom to check his profile rating for rules.
Tom’s Red (Low) rating reminds him he is more prone to bend the rules, which will serve to increase his workplace exposures. As Tom glances at the task safety graphic on the wall, he hears a personal safety message: “Get the work permit now, Tom, regardless of how you feel about needing it.” And the best part? The safety message is not coming from his supervisor or a safety professional, but from someone Tom knows and trusts: himself.
Your internal wiring
The four attributes of the internal safety profile – control, awareness, rules and caution -- helps Tom understand himself better in terms of how he is internally wired to work safely. He knows being low in rules means he, more than most, is capable of bending a rule comfortably. His task safety profile provides awareness to the hidden exposures his inner safety traits create as Tom takes on specific work tasks, such as starting his job with a valid work permit.
Meanwhile, the same task graphic sends an entirely different safety message to his co-worker Megan. Her abilities regarding the four profile factors is different than Tom’s; Megan’s is Blue (High) in rules. The task graphic reinforces what she is naturally wired to do — respect rules and get the work permit before starting the job.
While telling employees to work safely may sound inspirational, it has the same influence on their behavior as telling them to have a nice day. Like all messages that impact behavior, safety messages need to be specific to the person and the task.
The individual and task profiles we’ve discussed in this article make safety simple and personal. Working together, they immediately tell each employee where their unique exposures reside both in the workplace and hidden inside themselves. It’s that simple: with two graphics, safety is now personal.
- O’Connell, M.S., Delgado, K., Lawrence, A., Kung, M., & Tristan, E. (2017). Predicting workers’ compensation claims and disciplinary actions using SecureFit®: Further support for integrative models of workplace safety. Journal of Safety Research. 61, 77-81.
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- Tristan, E., & O’Connell, M.S. (2014). What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You. Journal of Industrial Management, March/April Issue.
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- Kung, M., O’Connell, M.S., Tristan, E., & Dishman, B. (2012). Simulate the job: Predicting accidents using a work sample. Journal of Organizational Psychology, 12, 145-154.