Personality is rarely the root cause of accidents
“I know your type”
Assessing personality types or styles goes back thousands of years. Rob Fisher, a human factors expert, says in ancient Asia, “fire,” “wind,” “water,” “earth” and other terms were used to capture the different personalities of different people.
A bit more recently, 42 years ago to be precise, “Personality Factors In Accident Causation” was a paper prepared in 1977 for the Texas Office of Traffic Safety. The paper cites traffic accident studies indicating that “long-term accident repeaters” are characterized by aggressiveness, impulsiveness, depression, anxiety and extroversion. The authors quickly add “the evidence at this date is tenuous, but there does seem to be a certain consistency in the traits described as accident-related when personality differences are identified.”
Extroverts may be more at risk of accidents? How? Well, the explanation given is that since extroverts tend to be less bound by social norms than introverts, it’s reasonable to assume they should be less interested in prescribed rules for safety.
Assessing personality strengths and potential vulnerabilities can be a useful tool for reducing human error and mitigating risks. But it’s a minefield safety pros need to walk through with deliberation.
Quick to judge
Why is it a minefield? First, we can’t make snap judgments about a person’s personality, but we’re human and we do. “Oh, he’s cool as a cucumber.” “She’s a heat-seeking missile. Always ready for a confrontation.” “He’s wound too tight.” And so on…
How long does it take us to arrive at these conclusions or assessments in a work environment? Not long. Most of us probably feel we can get a good read on a coworker in a matter of days, maybe weeks. Maybe hours. And what’s that “read” based on? We see certain behaviors. We hear certain opinions and views voiced on things. We see how people get along, or stick to themselves. Maybe we think back to other people we’ve “known” like this. Maybe we have a gut reaction, and we trust our gut.
Labeling a personality has safety ramifications. “He’s too aggressive, he’s going to get someone hurt.” “He’s a bit flaky, absent-minded, better watch out.”
But in truth, how well do we really “know” our co-workers? Some better than others, certainly. It depends on how intimate we are with them, how long we’ve worked with them. Days, weeks, months, years or decades?
There are actually few people, at work or off the job, who we really understand. There are just too many unknowns. Who knows the stressors in a person’s life? Their beliefs? Their perceptions. Their philosophy of life. Values. Living environment. Relationships. And all these can be constantly changing.
The blame game
So don’t rush to judge personalities. It’s like rushing to find the root cause of an incident. Too many investigations take the path of least resistance, the least complicated path, and judge the worker, blame the worker, for the error, failure or incident. It’s their fault and their fault alone.
That’s old school safety thinking. It saves time, sure, but it ignores the importance of context. The bigger picture surrounding an incident. The so-called system drivers. Perhaps a person is overly-aggressive and irritable because they’re doing the job of three people. Or the boss is on their back, micro-managing them. They’re being pushed, they’re overloaded.
Or on the other hand, you see someone off by himself, disengaged, disinterested, never speaking up about safety, and you conclude, “They’re anti-social. They’re angry. They’re afraid to speak up.” But rarely do we know the whole story, the context. There could be problems on the home front. Clashes with the boss. Some form of bullying that the organization permits.
One dangerous consequence of connecting personalities to safety is labeling someone “accident prone.” Talk about a minefield…
One researcher distinguishes between short-term and long-term accident proneness. The short-termer is either stressed-out and having “crisis reactions” to things like divorce or financial burdens, or reacting to temporary conditions such as illness or fatigue. The long-termer, meanwhile, has “character conditions” such as aggressiveness or disrespectfulness; or he is neurotic or psychotic; or suffers from physical conditions.
Another researcher came up with 16 personality factors relating to proneness to accidents: warmth, reasoning, emotional stability, dominance, liveliness, rule-consciousness, social boldness, sensitivity, vigilance, abstractedness, privateness, apprehension, openness to change, self-reliance, perfectionism and tension. Some of these traits, such as being reasonable, emotionally stable and rule-conscious, were found in individuals with lower scores of accident proneness.
A tiny percent
One of the gurus of safety, Dan Petersen, said research indicates that there is no such thing as one type of accident-prone person. Individuals perform in safe and unsafe ways depending on many variables, including exposure to external environmental factors. Context, in other words. “We could,” said Petersen, “perhaps screen out the tiny percent of irresponsible and maladjusted individuals who are truly accident-prone, but the cost would undoubtedly be not worth it.”
Or as Rob Fisher says, “No personality type is better than another. In addition, no one personality type is ‘riskier’ than another; we all have different ways that we manage risk naturally.”
Rob and Dan have it right. There is a need to take into account external, non-personality environmental factors (what effect does that nitpicking boss have on your personality tendencies, or working a lot of OT, or being short-staffed or under-resourced?) Life crises and various transient stressors also affect if you’re carefree, cautious, upbeat or depressed.
We’re not psychologists. We should know our limits and our biases when labeling personalities and then connecting them, for better or worse, to safety outcomes.
— Dave Johnson, ISHN Editor,