In this article I want to make an important distinction between one’s propensity to get injured on the job (injury proneness) versus one’s willingness to participate actively in safety improvement processes.

This is part on an ongoing series of articles I’ve written this year for ISHN on the role personality plays in industrial safety and health. Why focus on personality? Over the years in safety, we’ve tackled the so-called low-hanging fruit by focusing on recognizable risks that can be observed, measured and controlled. We’ve used strategies such as ergonomics, machine guarding and behavior-based safety. But even more injuries can be prevented if personality factors are adequately addressed.

The link between personality and safety has long been a subject of investigation. Piles of research in psychology show that personality factors influence behavior. In the 1950s, researchers avidly sought what they called the “accident prone” personality. Methods of study varied dramatically, and potential explanations for why some people seemed to suffer more injuries than others ranged from chance or “bad luck” to innate personality characteristics or traits. Each of these explanations and their accompanying methodologies were flawed, leading to studies that produced inconsistent or ambiguous results.

So data linking the control of injuries with personal factors were often misinterpreted, creating miscommunication and confusion among researchers and leading many to scoff at the concept of injury proneness.

The problem with proneness

Injury proneness is determined largely by internal or dispositional factors that are difficult to assess reliably. Injury proneness is more likely a trait (relatively permanent and difficult to change) than a state (such as a passing mood). Personality traits are more or less determined by the time a person reaches adolescence and are often the result of a mixture of genetics and early experiences.

Strategies to change one’s personality traits will usually be ineffective. Still, by gaining an understanding of these traits, job training can be tailored and job duties redefined to accommodate and capitalize on individual differences.

Personality states on the other hand can be addressed more directly. For example, situations controlled by the management of an organization and by relationships with managers and employees can influence a person’s willingness to contribute their time and effort toward a safety improvement process. In this case, we’re talking about a personality state that fluctuates according to behavioral context or climate.

Here’s the bottom line: It makes more sense to design environmental and behavioral interventions to get more people involved in a safety-improvement campaign than to attempt to change an individual’s personal proneness to get injured.

Figure 1 depicts this distinction between propensity for injury and willingness to participate in an injury-prevention effort. The labels given the four categories defined by the 2 x 2 matrix reflect the relative risk of injury to four different personality types. Where would you place yourself?

The safest individuals are those who are not injury prone and do whatever they can to prevent an injury. The most unsafe employees are those who do not take precautionary measures and are injury prone. Appropriate intervention strategies can move an “externally at-risk” individual into the safe category, but it’s unlikely an external technique can be successful in advancing an “internally at-risk” person to the safe classification.

Working with personality states

Let’s consider a few personality characteristics regarding the classification system of Figure 1. As a personality trait, anxiety probably influences both injury proneness and injury preventiveness, as discussed in my ISHN contribution last month. Plus, certain situations can activate an anxiety state and increase the probability of the kind of thinking and behavior that puts people at risk for personal injury. This change in state would presumably affect every participant in that setting and would not be considered injury proneness as a unique personality factor. In this case, the at-risk state could be eliminated by alterations of external or situational variables. We call this an injury preventive intervention. An anxiety state could also increase the perceived need for prevention and motivate intervention participation.

So from a personality or safety-identity perspective, person states are most relevant for injury prevention. They can be changed by an intervention process, and they reflect one’s willingness to participate in such a process.

In contrast, injury proneness is more relevant to personality traits than states, and is relatively immutable to external intervention.

Factors to consider

Some personality factors have greater impact on injury prevention than injury proneness. The four success/failure categories I discussed in my March and April ISHN columns — failure accepter, failure avoider, success seeker and overstriver — influence people’s motivational state and thus their desire to participate in a prevention effort.

Likewise, optimists and people who perceive a high level of personal control (termed “internals”) are more likely to be injury preventive than pessimists and “externals” (or those with relatively low expectations of personal control).

Still, because of their greater expectations of personal control and positive outcomes, internals and optimists might take more risks and thus be relatively injury prone. And so these personality factors can influence one’s propensity for both preventing — and experiencing — personal injury, resulting in no net gain for safety.

Obviously, we’ve just cracked the surface in showing how the variety of personality characteristics can impact one’s predisposition for personal injury and for voluntary participation in an injury-prevention program. The role of optimism and personal control were briefly mentioned, but numerous other personal dimensions are relevant including belongingness, self-efficacy, introversion/extroversion, perceptions of invulnerability, conscientiousness, need for approval, impulsivity, and emotional intelligence.

Hopefully this column, and my February, March and April columns (available at www.ishn.com), have furthered your understanding of the role personality plays in your safety and health efforts. It’s a complex subject, but worth your attention. Understanding the differences between personality traits and states helps you best select targets for your safety interventions, and to develop interventions to improve safety-related attitudes and behaviors.

SIDEBAR: Your chance to participate

At Virginia Tech’s Center for Applied Behavior Systems we have initiated a research project to continue the study of the person (or personality) factors that contribute to the safety-related behaviors of individuals. Our current Safety Identity Scale (SIQ) measures individual differences related to a person’s propensity to be injured as well as one’s willingness to actively participate in a safety-improvement process.

Additional information on the SIQ is available at www.safetyperformance.com under “related links.” By visiting this Web site, you can complete the SIQ as it currently stands. Your participation will be crucial to obtaining data to eventually demonstrate the validity of a refined assessment tool. By completing the items (which will take approximately 60-75 minutes), you will also be entered into a raffle for $100 to be drawn by August 1, 2004. If you do not have Internet access, please call (540) 231-8145 or send a letter to the address below for a paper copy of the SIQ: Safety Identity Questionnaire, Center for Applied Behavior Systems, 202 Williams Hall, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0436; dwiegand@vt.edu.