Selecting for Safety

Research suggests there are personality factors that predispose individuals to be accident prone.

DR. Jeffrey W. Runge of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration--the nation's top auto-safety regulator--suggests that if 90 percent of Americans wore seat belts, then 6,600 lives would be saved each year, and that the failure to wear seat belts costs society more than $26 billion annually (The Wall Street Journal, 2003).

Runge estimates 75 percent of Americans wear seat belts, compared to 14 percent in 1983 and 49 percent in 1990. Motor vehicles were the leading cause of fatal workplace accidents in the United States in 2000, accounting for 43.5 percent of all accidents; contact with objects or equipment was second at 17 percent, and violence was third at 15.7 percent (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2001). The National Safety Council (2001) estimates U.S. workplace accidents cost employers and their insurance companies a total of $131.2 billion in 2000. Hence, preventing accidents is a major concern for organizations.

In their attempt to minimize accidents, organizations have focused on two basic causes of accidents: 1) characteristics of the work environment and work practices (WEWP) and 2) worker characteristics. Most methods for improving safety have focused on improving WEWP. Examples are better design of equipment (e.g., hand-release switches that turn off the engine of a lawnmower when the operator lets go of the handle, completing engaging the clutch in an automobile before it starts); improving work areas (e.g., non-slip floors); making work more repetitive (for blue-collar workers); and safety training. Yet, in spite of attempts to improve safety and reduce accident rates by modifying the WEWP, it is known that a high proportion of work accidents can be attributed to human error and to a relatively small percentage of the workforce.

Karaguven (1999), in an article presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, suggested 70-90 percent of all injuries are caused by human error. Just as a small percentage of people are at risk for health problems and disproportionately burden the health care system, there are members of the workforce who have personal characteristics that predispose them to be injured at work.

This purpose of this article is to examine some of these personal characteristics. By identifying and better understanding personal characteristics related to injury, organizations can a) select out at-risk individuals before hiring or b) identify employees who are at risk and design interventions to minimize the probability of accidents. In this article, personal characteristics refer to personality traits, not other personal characteristics such as age, education, and tenure, which have been related to accident potential. Age, education, and tenure are most likely associated with accident risk because they are associated with certain types of jobs that are associated with certain stress levels or levels of responsibillity. For example, highly educated employees often have jobs with higher levels of responsibility and stress than lesser educated employees, and the increase in stress leads to accident proneness (See Karaguven, 1999, paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research). Put differently, job type is most likely to be predictive of accident proneness--not age, education, or tenure.

Delving into Accident Proneness
When assessing personality traits related to accident proneness, there are a number of issues subject to debate. How do you define and act upon accident proneness? Are the effects of the work environment controlled when examining the effects of individual differences? And, if one can identify personality traits related to accident proneness, do these traits generalize from one setting to another? Given this is a relatively new area of research, there are limited data from which to formulate a coherent conceptual framework regarding personality traits and accident proneness; however, there is evidence that suggests a small cluster of personality traits may be predictive of accident proneness.

Samantha Dunn, in her recent book "Not by Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life" (2002), suggests emotional states that lead to distraction contribute to accidents. Dunn suggests anxiety, stress, and depression are at the root of accidents because they cloud judgments and slow reaction time. Couples who experience marital troubles, for example, had a higher incidence of traffic accidents and violations in the year in which they were divorced. However, Dunn also suggests some people are predisposed to accidents--those who tend to be distressed, depressed, and anxious (i.e., neurotic)--and that stressful events exacerbate the severity and likelihood of occurrence. Thus, certain personality characteristics and/or emotional states may be risk factors for accident proneness.

Recent work by Roderick and Erwin (1997) in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology suggests mood--positive and negative affect--is predictive of occupational injury. Positive and negative affects are highly distinctive mood dimensions that have been shown to be related to the broader personality characteristics of extraversion and neuroticism, respectively. Positive affect (PA) reflects the extent to which people perceive situations in a positive, alert, and enthusiastic manner; negative affect (NA) reflects the extent to which individuals display subjective distress and unpleasurable engagement.

Roderick and Erwin, using a predictive design with blue-collar employees in a large manufacturing plant in Australia, found employees high in PA were less likely to be victims of occupational injuries. High PA employees report a tendency to control their environment, have a high degree of task engagement, and engage in accurate and systematic decision-making by gathering data, requesting information, and recognizing situational contingencies. Conversely, employees who have the predisposition to perceive situations in a variety of aversive states (high NA) were more likely to be victims of occupational injuries. High NA employees are known to have attention lapses, be easily distracted, and prefer emotional coping strategies, which made them more prone to accidents and injuries. The effects of affect on occupational injury occurred independent of personal (age, tenure, education, and gender) and quality-of-work-life factors (routinization and supervisor and co-worker support).

The foregoing analysis suggests there are personality factors that predispose individuals to be accident prone; likewise, there may be personality constructs that reduce the probability that one may be at risk for accidents. Individuals who score high on tests of neuroticism, for example, tend to be more accident prone than those who do not have this predisposition. Similarly, those who have high NA are also more accident prone. Conversely, individuals who are high extraversion and high in PA are less likely to be accident prone. These personality factors seem to be associated with accident proneness because they affect attention span, distractability, the extent to which information is gathered, how situational contingencies are recognized, and the accuracy and quality of decision making.

Organizations may want to consider these personality factors in attempt to create a safer work environment and minimize the costs of accidents and injuries. Individuals could be assessed during the selection process, as well as on the job. Employees at risk could be provided training to be more attentive, reduce distractions, and engage in better decision-making processes, for example. Because individuals at risk are more likely to be affected by stressful events in their lives, they could be provided additional social support, changes in their job to make the job less stressful (e.g., reduce role conflict and role ambiguity), or, perhaps, temporary reassignment.

This article originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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