In our work over the past 20 years with numerous companies and their safety and management personnel, the role of stress in incidents has either been unknown or downplayed. In 1983, when we first entered the field of safety, we conducted original research to determine the causes of accidents and injuries for a site of a major chemical company. Reading their incident reports and interviewing people that had and had not been injured led us to an interesting discovery.

We determined two primary causes of accidents and injuries:

  • Automatic or non-deliberate behaviors, such as daydreaming, distractions, inattention, and stress.

  • Pre-meditated or deliberate behaviors resulting from unsafe choices made by both management and line employees. These stemmed from various attitudes and beliefs related to time, comfort, convenience, producing results, "looking good" or "macho" and the desire to show one's strength, ability, or being a super hero or heroine.

    So interestingly, we found that stress was a factor in causing incidents to occur. We determined that stress-related accidents are caused by:

    1) Fatigue and lowered response time by individuals or groups working alone or together;

    2) Loss of focus or attention;

    3) Muscles being tense and tight;

    4) Conscious choices to take short cuts or by-pass procedures to get a job done quickly and move on to another priority.

    What can we do?

    If we accept stress as a reality and understand its implications to safety, health, and environmental performance, then what can we do to reduce stress and the possibility of incidents?

    Many simple yet effective stress management techniques allow us to control or reduce stress or tension levels and remain within an optimal range for good or effective performance, health, and well-being. These methods emanate from a management/leadership commitment. We believe it's the responsibility of the owner/leadership of a business or work site to minimize and prevent stressors that affect all levels of employees through these steps:

  • Provide resources to minimize the various sources of stress and improve workplace conditions or environment.

  • Reduce high levels of noise and dust, fumes and bad air from poor ventilation; replace old, unsafe, and malfunctioning equipment; eliminate crowded work areas, etc.

  • When downsizing occurs, hire outplacement and counseling services to help a person cope and gain confidence in their ability to handle the situation.

  • Involve employees at all levels in identifying and solving unsafe and unworkable situations, conditions, and issues to help reduce the stress that these situations cause. This gives people a sense of power and control over their circumstances.

    Caution is necessary here. You need proper respect and support of the process, as well as the resources necessary to carry out and complete the solutions and recommendations of your various teams and work groups. If this doesn't occur, the upset, frustration, and anger that results will create new stressors that may be greater than the original problem or concern.

  • Provide effective leadership, management, and interactive skills to eliminate poor communication, threats, and ineffective handling of accidents and incidents. Here, stress levels can build with increasing concerns over possible consequences of substandard performance, whether production or safety/environment related.

  • Incentive systems intended to increase productivity or prevent accidents, injuries, and environmental incidents can fuel increased levels of stress. Real or perceived pressures from oneself or others to rush to produce or to meet a numerical goal (even safety goals) can create situations where serious incidents occur. Covering up incidents so as not to lose an incentive can create stress on a number of levels.

  • Stress-producing events such as increased regulatory demands on employers can cause resistance to change and rigid response to the demands. When the cost of a change rises, rational managers either drop the change idea or give it a low priority. Thus, even though change is possible, the chances that it will be attempted and achieved are lowered as change costs rise. This barrier must be overcome.

    Easing the conflict

    A fundamental stress-producing conflict between employees and their employers can occur when a worker is injured. The degree of stress experienced by both the injured employee and the employer depends on the impact of the injury on the organization and on the productivity of the workplace. Undue concern over the numbers, individual and group incentives, numbers-driven performance measurement systems, reactive management styles, rising workers' compensation costs, along with replacement costs for employees who are disabled or on restricted work activity are added "stressors" for companies and their employees.

    Here are steps you can take to relieve the tension:

    1) Accident investigation teams need to be trained in coaching and counseling methods to ensure constructive and learning interactions.

    2) Management and labor leadership must take the initiative to proactively address the various levels of stress and take effective actions to:

    • Correct workplace conditions and environments;
    • Learn skills to communicate and interact constructively with all employees;
    • Make continual improvements in identified and needed areas;
    • Provide needed resources for training and improvements;
    • Give people the ability to be safe and make corrections.

    3) Controlling stress also is needed at the individual level, where employees are taught personal stress management skills. The key is learning to reduce stress on a daily and moment-to-moment basis. Controlling stress starts with identifying situations that cause stress and learning skills to respond more effectively in that situation.

    Once a person can identify the stressors and their response patterns to them, they can then discover what the causes are and develop plans of action for improvement. People need skills and techniques to manage, reduce, and prevent stress buildup. These can include:

    • Stress reduction and relaxation;
    • Physical fitness;
    • Nutrition;
    • Time management and goal setting;
    • Self-management;
    • Assertiveness training and constructive communication skills.

    Bottom line: Sources of stress can be eliminated when addressed on organizational and personal levels, and when given appropriate attention, resources and training.

    SIDEBAR: Temporary measures

    Some attempts to relieve stress result in masking over the stress rather than causing it to go away. When the effects of the "reliever" wear off, stress comes back with a vengeance.

    Caffeine, for example, stimulates the adrenal glands and causes more adrenaline to be released, which can create a nervous state. There are drugs that may give the illusion of reducing stress but when the drug starts to wear off, more of the drug is required to give the same illusion of relief.

    There is a mechanism called the "sedation agitation syndrome." The way it works is that a drug may provide a sedating or relieving effect for a period of time. But since the relief of a negative feeling by a drug is an illusion, as more and more of the drug is taken, the masked-over tension, stress, anger or any other negative feeling continues to accumulate. Levels of agitation result that can no longer be sedated by any amount of the drug.

    This is often the time when a person may lash out to unsuspecting victims in an attempt to relieve their anger or frustration.

    SIDEBAR: Not all bad. . .

    There is good and bad stress. We actually need stress to keep us alert and able to respond quickly to a stimulus or real threat of danger. When we have goals and obstacles to overcome, stress can help us achieve them. This is what is called a positive stressor. If we view ourselves as "in control" after being downsized out of a job, "good stress" could help stimulate us to get back up and look for the circumstances that will support us in finding a new and even better job.

    Stress related to a real danger will stimulate the "flight or fight" mechanism and give us the energy and power to respond and protect ourselves. We often find "superhuman" strength and resiliency and are able to channel the energy and drive to do whatever we need to do to take care of our interests and ourselves.