Moving Selection to the Top of the Hierarchy

Using safety as a criterion for selection of employees, through the use of scientifically valid and legally defensible tools, can reduce organizational risks.

A foundational element of health and safety decision-making, as it relates to hazards, is the hierarchy of controls. The hierarchy of controls guides health and safety professionals in choosing a control measure that most effectively reduces the risks involved in the situation at hand. There is no one hierarchy of controls that all health and safety professionals agree upon, but most are similar to the hierarchy found in the American National Standards Institute's (ANSI) and American Industrial Hygiene Association's ANSI/AIHA Z10-2012 Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems standard, which has six levels, starting with elimination, substitution, and engineering controls in the higher levels and ending with warning systems, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment (PPE) in the lower levels.

Health and safety professionals trying to reduce risks to acceptable levels should first focus on the higher levels and move to the lower levels only when higher levels are not feasible. For example, if we are trying to protect ourselves from a tiger, the most effective way to do so is to not bring in a tiger in the first place (i.e., elimination). If you can't eliminate the tiger (after all, empty zoos are rather boring), then you should consider other control strategies, such as substituting a bobcat for the tiger, putting the tiger in a cage, or using only highly trained employees to deal with the tiger. Only after all of those controls were shown to be infeasible would we consider wearing some sort of "tiger-protective suit" (if such a thing exists).

Traditionally, human resources efforts to reduce safety incidents have been considered to fall in the lower levels of the hierarchy of controls, usually in the "administrative controls" category. Clearly, efforts associated with effective training of employees and standardized, safe work procedures reasonably fall within that level. Underlying this is an inherent assumption that all employees respond relatively equally to training or to following accepted procedures. One might refer to this as the "generic worker" model. We can all agree that some salespeople sell more than others and that some athletes are faster, stronger, and more agile than others. Why, then, would we assume that everyone will respond equally well to training and instruction or that they all come into the work environment with the same level of inherent risk propensity?

What if some people are just fundamentally more likely to be involved in incidents than others, regardless of the training you provide? We can all think of people we know who seem to be "accident-prone" individuals. They are nice people, but we wouldn't want them carrying around our fine china. What if you were accurately able to identify these high-risk employees before you ever hired them? If so, then you could eliminate that risk or hazard entirely by screening them in the hiring process. In that way, employee selection may prevent errors that haven't happened yet because we screened out the error-prone individuals before they ever set foot on the work site. This focus on prevention is similar to the higher, more effective levels within the hierarchy of controls, such as substitution. In a sense, we are reducing the risks, as opposed to completely eliminating them, because no one is completely devoid of inherent risk factors. We would be replacing a high-risk individual with a low-risk one, or replacing the tiger with a bobcat (i.e., there's still some risk involved, just a lot less).

How Screening Out Can Save Money
Researchers at Select International, a Pittsburgh-based assessment developer, recently conducted a series of studies where they looked at applying an assessment of safety risk in the hiring process in a number of industries. The results were both significant and consistent. For instance, in one study that followed a group of almost 2,000 temporary employees at two large auto manufacturers for 12 months, individuals who were identified as high risk in the screening process were 70 percent more likely to be involved in a documented incident resulting in an injury than other employees. Only 9 percent of the entire group was identified as high risk, and yet their injury incident rate was almost twice that of everyone else.

If this organization had simply screened out the 9 percent of high-risk employees who were identified early on in the hiring process and replaced (i.e., substituted) them with non-high-risk employees, it would have had 850 fewer lost days associated with injuries and incurred $270,000 less in direct costs and more than $1 million in indirect costs during that 12-month period.

A second study looked at approximately 400 workers from three different organizations representing oil and gas, paper products manufacturing, and construction materials manufacturing for a 36-month period. During that time there were 59 OSHA recordable injuries (an incident rate of approximately 4.9, which is in line with the 4.4 incident rate for manufacturing firms, according to 2010 DOL data). Individuals identified by the assessment as "high risk," or approximately 7 percent of the entire group, accounted for almost one half (46 percent) of all OSHA recordable injuries. Another way to look at this is that the "high-risk" individuals had recordable injury rates that were almost six times as high as the other 93 percent of the group. Individuals in the study worked alongside one another in a wide range of positions, performing similar work, and had the same supervisors and the same level of training as everyone else. In addition, each of the three organizations in the study has active, proactive safety programs already in place. By identifying "high-risk" individuals early on in the selection process, these organizations could have eliminated almost 50 percent of all work-related injuries.

Four Primary Risk Factors
What's really interesting here is that a relatively small percentage of individuals, fewer than 10 percent of employees across these organizations, accounted for a disproportionate percentage of work-related injuries. There aren't many organizational safety initiatives that have the potential to reduce work-related injuries by 50 percent. As part of a systematic approach to safety management and risk reduction, it's clear that the identification and removal by selection of high-risk individuals in a scientifically valid and legally defensible way before they step onto the work site might be one of the most cost-effective solutions available.

So what are the factors that define someone as being "high risk"? Based on a review of research in this area, Select came up with four primary risk factors, which they evaluate in a short, online assessment:

(1) Stays in Control. This relates to personal and emotional control. This is an important factor that typically only comes into play under stressful situations. In other words, some people may perform well on the other three factors under normal situations, but when an emergency happens, they have difficulty maintaining composure and are likely to do something that puts them or others into harm's way.

(2) Aware of Surroundings. The second factor focuses on the individual's awareness of his or her environment. Incidents often occur not because of overt actions such as taking shortcuts, not wearing proper protective equipment, or behaving in an unsafe manner, but because the individual was not sufficiently aware of the dangers around him.

(3) Follows Rules. This factor focuses on diligence, following rules, working hard, and taking responsibility. Simply put, some individuals are more rule-bound than others. Those who are not are more likely to increase their level of exposure by not following safety rules that they feel do not apply to them or are not important.

(4) Exhibits Caution. The fourth and final factor focuses on the individual's proclivity toward risk-taking behavior, as well as his impulsivity. Impulsive individuals tend to be more volatile and unpredictable. Individuals high in risk taking are often described as "thrill seeking" or "sensation seeking." Combining volatility and thrill seeking greatly increases the likelihood of increased exposure.

People tend to differ in each one of these factors. Looking at these as a Gestalt or a whole helps determine an individual's likelihood of being involved in a minor or major safety incident.

Another question is whether or not it's legally defensible to screen out candidates in a selection process due to a low score on such a safety assessment. The answer to that, at least in this particular case, is yes. Legal defensibility is based on both job relatedness and adverse impact, or differences in how various demographic groups perform on the assessment. The assessment in question shows little between-group differences. That means males and females and blacks and whites, for instance, perform approximately the same on the test. In addition, job relatedness in this case can be defined as lower incidence of unsafe behavior and increased risk of injury. Additionally, many of the same characteristics that are associated with being a "safe" worker are also associated with being a "good" worker. Not surprisingly, safe workers also tend to come to work on time, have higher work standards, work well with others, and demonstrate high attention to detail.

The concept of including safety as one of the criteria for selecting employees is very consistent with a relatively recent push within the safety management world to incorporate "Prevention through Design"into organizational safety management programs. The idea is that the only stage in the life cycle of any process where the risks are theoretical is in the conceptual or design phase. Reducing risks at this stage is more efficient and cost effective than at any other stage. This is causing organizations to incorporate safety criteria into decision-making processes, such as in deciding which contractors to bring on site and which piece of equipment to purchase. Including safety criteria in employee selection is a logical offshoot of these programs.

In fact, some organizations are already incorporating safety as a criterion for employee selection. With the selection tools currently being developed and offered on the market, this process will only become more commonplace. It would not be surprising to see organizations using selection processes as a benchmark for best-in-class safety management systems in the near future because the concept of employee selection using these tools is consistent with the state of the art in safety management and with the top of the hierarchy of controls, such as substitution.

Using safety as a criterion for selection of employees, through the use of scientifically valid and legally defensible selection tools, can be effective in reducing organizational risks and can be used as part of an overall safety management system to prevent injuries and illnesses and lower associated costs.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 OHS issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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