Is Your Brain Hardwired for Safety?

March 28, 2017
More than two-thirds of serious workplace injuries are the result of two causes: failure to adhere to life-saving rules and unexpected changes in exposure.

As organizations continuously seek to improve workplace safety, there is a growing focus on preventing serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs). These are the incidents that lead to lost time from work, life-altering injuries or even loss of life. For this reason, it is important to identify the types of events and situations that can lead to SIFs, and how we can prevent them.

Research in the past two decades has identified various practices that proactively can help prevent SIFs. Experts typically recommend identifying SIF precursors, heightened education of SIFs, using root cause analysis and implementing various controls.

However, research on SIFs still is an emerging field, and there is much we do not know about the exact types of factors or events that contribute to these events.

One of the key things we do know, thanks to an important study published last year by Martin and Black in Professional Safety, is that, across industries, roughly 21 percent of all safety incidents fall into the category of a SIF. This means that either the incident resulted in a serious injury or fatality, or if the incident occurred again, it realistically could result in a serious injury or fatality.

Results from this study showed that most SIF incidents are associated with just a few precursor "themes." Out of the 55 SIF incidents they analyzed:

  • 42 percent resulted from breakdowns in processes related to life-saving rules.
  • 29 percent occurred during routine tasks during which an exposure changed from a "normal state," and was not anticipated, recognized or controlled.
  • 11 percent were related to human factors not connected to a life-saving rule process.
  • Another 10 percent were related to other things such as equipment/process/engineering design flaws or predictive/preventative maintenance tasks.

Interestingly, only three themes accounted for 82 percent of all the SIF incidents that were analyzed, and the first two themes make up over two-thirds of all SIF events (71 percent). That tells us that if we want to really get to the heart of SIF incidents, we need to look at two things:

Life-saving rules – What are they, why aren't employees following these rules and what obstacles are making it harder for them to follow these rules?

Unexpected changes in exposure – What did employees fail to plan for? What changes did they fail to notice or detect? And if they did see these, why did they underestimate the associated risk of the changes?

Psychological Traits That Predict Safe Behavior

Injuries most often are the result of multiple complex factors, such as organizational safety culture, engineering, design and situational factors (e.g., time pressure).

However, human behavior also plays an important role in any safety incident, and behavior is driven in part by individual characteristics such as mental abilities, personality traits and attitudes. Research in the field of industrial and organizational psychology has identified a set of psychological characteristics – or factors – that predict safety outcomes across multiple industries and job types (Christian, Bradley, Wallace & Burke, 2009); Clarke & Robertson, 2005). When measured using validated psychometric testing, these factors are shown to be highly predictive of at-risk behavior and injury likelihood.

These traits can be grouped into four broad, psychological safety factors that consistently are associated with safety-related behaviors and incidents. These are 1) rules 2) awareness 3) caution and 4) control. Each of these psychological factors varies widely across the population. In other words, these characteristics are not distributed equally across individuals. We each possess different levels of each factor, which gives us each our own psychological "profile" when it comes to personal safety.

In 2012, Select International conducted a study in which we tested over 800 employees across multiple industries on a psychometric assessment that measured these four factors. We found that employees who scored low on these factors were four times more likely to be injured on the job compared to those with high scores. More importantly, those with low scores were 11 times more likely to sustain a serious injury compared to those who scored higher. Even when accounting for the risk level of the job and the experience of the employee, these statistically significant results did not change, thus providing strong support for the importance of these psychological factors in injury prevention.

Given this link between stable psychological traits and serious injury involvement, there is value in examining how each psychological safety factor relates to the SIF precursor themes referenced in the Martin and Black (2015) study.

SIF Theme 1: Breakdowns in Life-Saving Rules Processes
Over 40 percent of SIF incidents tend to be associated with this theme – the largest slice of the SIF pie. Assuming employees 1) are properly trained on all life-saving rules and how to follow them, and 2) the work environment enables them to follow these rules (sadly these are big assumptions in some organizations), the employee performing the work has to bear at least some of the responsibility for following established safety policies – especially those which are life-saving rules.

But not everyone interprets rules in the same manner; it depends on their personality traits. The Rules Factor is a set of psychological traits that relates to how a person perceives and feels about rules in general. People who are rule-bound actually prefer rules. They like structure, predictability and defined parameters and therefore do not ten```d to question policies. Rules actually give them a sense of comfort. Those who are not as rule-bound tend to feel restricted by policies and procedures and they prefer to have the flexibility to use their own judgment as to when to follow rules; rules are like "general guidelines" to them.

All things being equal, which employee is more likely to follow a life-saving rule when it will add an extra 30 minutes and they are running behind schedule – a natural rule follower, or someone who sees rules as guidelines? In these high-stakes situations, it is possible that an employee's natural trait level on this factor could tip the scales and influence their decision to bend a rule.

SIF Theme 2: Unexpected Changes in Risk Exposure
Nearly 30 percent of the SIF incidents in the Martin and Black study occurred when the exposure level, or the "normal state," unexpectedly changed, and the employees did not anticipate, recognize or control the hazardous conditions. The authors specifically noted that incidents in this category "likely could have been prevented through a proper pre-task risk assessment."

There are three psychological factors that can play a critical role in these types of situations, where unexpected and sudden changes occur – control, awareness and caution. Following a natural sequence, these factors may coincide with the steps in this type of SIF case, where employees 1) failed to anticipate a potential change in conditions, and/or 2) failed to recognize the change and/or 3) failed to address the change that increased exposure to risk. Let's look at these psychological factors in this order of events.

Failing to anticipate the change. The Control Factor deals with the extent to which a person feels that they are in control of what happens to them, as well as how well they can control their emotions under stressful situations. People who are low in this factor tend be fatalistic and attribute events to either luck or circumstance, whereas people who are high on this factor generally feel that outcomes are a result of their actions. As mentioned above, the SIF cases in this category likely could have been prevented through a pre-task risk assessment. Thus, we can assume there was a lack of planning or anticipation of "what could go wrong" in many of these cases.

The Control Factor is important here, because if a person is low on control, he or she probably does not think many things in his/her life are controllable or preventable. So why would he/she think that injuries are preventable? As a result, an individual may be less likely to plan for a task ahead of time, or may not conduct an effective pre-task risk assessment.

Failing to recognize the change. Perhaps the employees in these types of SIF events did not plan for the changing circumstances, but they still could have detected or noticed the change in conditions. However, not everyone does this equally. Research shows there are sizeable differences in this ability across the population.

The Awareness Factor is a combination of mental abilities that deal with mental alertness, attention to detail and short-term memory. Those high on awareness tend to notice things faster and more frequently, stay focused and remember things more accurately, which helps them detect changes in conditions more quickly and consistently than others. That is why studies show they tend to be injured less frequently.

If an employee frequently struggles to be aware and alert on the job, he naturally is more likely to miss a sudden or slight change in conditions, which can raise his level of exposure to risk without him even noticing it. It is quite possible that some of the SIF incidents in this category occurred in part due to employees not seeing or noticing a change related to the working environment, equipment, or physical surroundings.

Failing to control the change. The study also noted that these SIFs occurred in situations where the change in exposure was not anticipated, recognized or controlled. That means that in some cases, the employees were aware of the change in exposure level but they did not take any action to control the risk. This is where the next psychological factor comes into play – the Caution Factor. This is all about risk tolerance and how it varies from person to person.

Some individuals are very comfortable with risks, while others are very risk-avoidant.

When you combine this trait with impulsivity (i.e., do you think before you act?), you end up with the Caution Factor – overall comfort level with risk and impulsivity. In SIF cases where there was a change in conditions, and employees did not act to control the risk, this means they probably were comfortable with the risk because they did not think anything would happen to them. That is exactly what this psychological trait is all about – it is the part of your personality that tips the scales when it comes to the risk vs. reward equation. People who naturally are higher on this factor are uncomfortable with risks and are less impulsive, and research shows they engage in safer behavior and are injured less frequently than those who score lower on this factor.

Applications to the Workplace

There are many potential applications for these psychological factors to the prevention of SIFs. For example, these traits and their associated behaviors can be incorporated into the risk assessment process by embedding them into an existing JSA/JHA process, such that employees are trained to consider these factors while conducting a risk assessment. Safety professionals also can include these factors in the root cause analysis process during investigations to better understand the decision-making and behaviors that could have contributed to an incident. When used correctly, this can create a learning opportunity to prevent similar incidents in the future, rather than serving as a fault-finding exercise.

Another simple application includes toolbox meetings, where topics can touch upon the safety factors that are most critical to the work being done that day. By reminding employees of how these traits can increase their risk during potentially hazardous work situations (e.g., lockout/tagout, working at heights), this can provide valuable reminders for them to increase self-awareness and adjust behaviors as needed in order to prevent a serious injury to themselves or their co-workers.

Individual differences in psychological characteristics play an important role in shaping our safety-related behavior. However, while our personalities and abilities may influence what we do, they do not dictate our actions. We always have the choice to work safely.

A person who naturally sees rules as guidelines still can make an active choice to follow safety policies, just like an individual who tends to be forgetful or distracted can create habits to be more observant on the job.

We simply need to understand that some of these behaviors may require more effort on our part because they do not come as easily to us as other behaviors. By understanding how our minds are psychologically "hardwired" for safety, we can recognize our starting point and better prepare ourselves to work safely in hazardous situations where we could be seriously injured.

Esteban Tristan, Ph.D., is the safety practice manager and a senior consultant at Select International. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.

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