Part I Unsafe work behaviour; a snowball effect
Human factors are involved in most health & safety (H&S) related incidences ranging from employee injuries and fatalities to property damage. Such events sometimes resulting from one single and simple action may propel a chain of high social and financial costs. Indeed, workplace injuries and fatalities persist in large numbers with the U.S. Department of Labor reporting (Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2018) a staggering 3.5 million injuries in 2016 only. Furthermore, U.S. businesses pour almost $1 billion each week into compensation payments, medical expenses, and legal services, not including expenses for property damage, accident investigations, training replacements, client dissatisfaction etc. (Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 2018). To battle such snowballing effects, organisations must equip themselves with a good understanding of the antecedents to H&S matters. And here is where human error in the workplace expressed as a tendency to engage in risky behaviours, kicks in.
Part II Personality markers
Research clearly suggests that involvement in H&S misbehaviour occurs unequally across individuals; in other words some personalities do display a higher propensity for dangerous behaviours and (unhealthy) risk taking (e.g. Nicholson et al., 2005). The importance of personality in the realm of workplace safety is supported by at least four meta-analyses. Let’s attempt a chronological investigation to extract some aggregated points.
Separate studies upon the matter have uncovered several links between certain personality traits -as described by the Five Factor models (FFM) of personality- and workplace accidents. Wallace and Vodanovich (2003) for instance have demonstrated a significant correlation between low conscientiousness and the display of risky workplace behaviour for samples of military personnel and production workers. Taking this and similar studies into account Clark & Robertson’s (2005) meta-analysis investigated the predictive power of several FFM personality traits against occupational as well as non-occupational accidents (i.e. accidents on the roads). The study showcased that different personality traits exert different productive power over the two groups of accidents. Low conscientiousness and low agreeableness were generalisable across both groups of accidents as being strong predictors of risky behaviour. Extraversion (high) proved a valid predictor of traffic accidents, but not of occupational ones. In occupational settings, high neuroticism emerged as a uniquely valid predictor of workplace accidents.
Clark & Roberson, returned to the debate a few years later (2008) with a second literature review. The researchers found that even though situational variables may buffer any relationship between personality and safety performance at work, low agreeableness (distrust, egocentricity, competitiveness, aggression etc.) remained a good overall predictor of reckless workplace behaviour and work accidents.
Trait conscientiousness (high) was noted as being positively associated with safety performance (i.e. using protective equipment, practicing risk reduction, following safety regulations, helping, stewardship, whistleblowing upon witnessing unsafe performance practiced etc.) and safety outcomes (i.e. injuries and accidents) in Christian et al.’s (2009) meta-analysis. Furthermore, the researchers uncovered -beyond the classic FFM model- internal locus of control to be strongly associated with positive safety performance. Locus of control -partially but not entirely related to high neuroticism- describes the extent to which people feel they themselves shape their day and exercise control over the events of life (internal locus) as opposed to those events being forced upon them by external dynamics (external locus). People with a high internal locus tend to engage in safety practices because they believe they can control and monitor their workplace, accidents included. We will return later on to Christian et al.’s meta-analytic results since a third interesting finding must be discussed.
In more recent years (2015), Beus et al. showcased that higher levels of conscientiousness (one again) and agreeableness (especially altruism, at a facet level) were associated with fewer dangerous behaviours. Indeed, conscientious people value sticking to well established working protocols. Similarly, agreeable individuals are less likely to engage in unsafe behaviours since by doing so they could jeopardise their group’s interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, higher levels of extraversion (at a facet -level excitement-seeking) and neuroticism (at a facet level anger and impulsiveness) were linked to increased unsafe behaviours. Individuals scoring high in trait neuroticism tend to preoccupy themselves with external stressors and negative emotions such as anger, a propensity that renders them vulnerable to distraction and impulsive thinking. Similarly, highly extraverted employees are more likely to think irrationally and “work unsafely by cutting corners” (Beus et al, 2015, p. 7) in order to somewhat satisfy their competitive nature.
Part III Practical conclusive points; beyond personality
Up to this point we have highlighted the importance of personality in shaping workers’ H&S behaviours. However personality traits do exist inside a social void; rather they are triggered, augmented or constrained by the social context; a certain organisational context (Doerr, 2020). So does personality remain a consistent predictor of safety behaviour, regardless of contextual factors? Yes and no.
In Christian et al.’s (2009) meta-analysis for instance, personality (trait conscientiousness) did predict directly the individual’s motivation to engage in safety actions, but its effect was dependent on whether the organisation had already a certain safety climate in place. The presence of a strong safety culture -or the lack of it- can increase or restrain the individual’s inclination to engage in dangerous behaviours. When organisations explicitly state all rules and consequences, most employees will be careful and thoughtful about their actions without needing personal desire or motivation. The reverse occurs in companies wherein there is less clarity and guidance around H&S matters. In such fluid contexts personality takes the upper hand and becomes the force that dictates whether the individual will act carelessly. In support of this thesis, a growing body of research points that workers’ perceptions of how much health & safety is prioritised by leaders and fellow coworkers (i.e. the safety climate) meaningfully influences their H&S choices and behaviour (Nahrgang et al., 2011, Zohar, 2011). Doerr (2020) proposed some interesting supporting findings. In his study, safety climate perceptions once again moderated the relationship between conscientiousness and H&S behaviour. What is more, trait extraversion (i.e. a desire to attain status, exert influence over others etc.) otherwise predicting the individual’s propensity for risky behaviours, yielded a weaker effect upon safety in firms with a stronger safety culture. However agreeableness (high) & neuroticism (low) were predictive of positive safety behaviour regardless of the workers’ perceptions about the intensity of safety climate present within their firms. What do all theses findings reveal?
Strategic choices should be made, especially when conducting hiring, staffing processes. Indeed, “personality testing may be a highly useful tool for hiring individuals into safety-intensive jobs” (Doerr, 2020, p.6). However, any firm should take into account the strength of its H&S culture. Organisations with strong cultures may be able to leverage their people’s traits (e.g. conscientiousness) to increase safety behaviours and at the same time “mute” certain tendencies (e.g. high neuroticism) towards dangerous actions. On the other hand organisations with weaker safety climates are advised to avoid hiring individuals who score high in “high risk’’ traits, at least for the time being.
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