Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 166
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Hurt on the Job

Research reveals ways we can make workplaces safer.

If you've ever tended to injured employees and listened to their pain, worries, and accusations, you've also probably heard the lament that the person should have stayed home that day and not come to work at all. This sentiment reflects a reaction to the injury, but often, it also reveals an attitude that was present before the injury, an attitude that provided a pathway to the accident. This is a dispositional factor of the individual, and linking it to accidents is a new, not-so-surprising finding of a study in an Australian factory by Roderick Iverson of the University of Melbourne.

Iverson studied 362 production workers, and in the 12 months following his initial surveys, 27 people were hurt, requiring medical attention, and missing work (1-12 days). One factor Iverson measured was a dispirited disposition which he named "negative affectivity" and defined as a tendency to experience negative emotions more frequently than other people.

People scoring high on this factor perceive new situations negatively. They feel anxious and tense, and they are indecisive and depressed. When they perform work tasks, Iverson found, they sometimes become distracted and make errors resulting in an injury. This finding makes intuitive sense, but Iverson's study is the first to demonstrate it.

Another factor Iverson studied was extroversion. Past research pointed toward highly extroverted people as likely to cause accidents by choosing risky strategies to complete their work. This earlier research implicated overconfidence, intolerance, and aggression as components of extroversion that seemed responsible for the trouble.

But Iverson suspected this finding was overly simplistic. He looked more carefully at extroversion and tested another component of it, positive affectivity (the tendency to experience enthusiasm and other positive emotions more frequently than other people). People scoring high in this factor report feeling effective, and take steps to actively control their environment. They also are unlikely to be injured on the job. Enthusiasm and positive affect seem to prevent injuries.

A third factor Iverson explored was support, both from one's supervisor and one's coworkers. Production workers reporting high levels of support experienced few injuries. Iverson pointed out such support provides critical information about tasks and a person's performance of those tasks at crucial times, perhaps the very moments that prevent an accident. A socially deficient environment lacking this supportive information would fail individuals when they need it most for their own safety.

Iverson also found gender to be important. In this factory, men and women performed the same jobs, but women were much more likely to be hurt, especially after 7 hours on the job. Fatigue, and lesser upper body strength and stamina are the likely explanations.

Finally, Iverson found that injuries seldom occurred when employees performed routine work. These are familiar tasks that have already exposed their dangers through repetition, and managers have responded by creating procedures and barriers that make injury unlikely, such as covering a power take off with a metal housing. Iverson found this factor had the greatest impact on preventing injuries.

Iverson reminds us that a large proportion of accidents are experienced by a small percentage of our workers, and it's appealing to try to identify them before they're hired so we can avoid trouble and screen them out the door. But that really solves nothing. It merely pushes responsibility for them onto someone else.

A more compassionate response to reduce the incidence of injuries begins by identifying people likely to experience them. Next, move fatigued workers to safer, routine jobs near the end of their work day. Create a supportive atmosphere by encouraging people, talking about the tasks at hand, and encouraging a supportive camaraderie among coworkers. And finally, scrutinize non-routine tasks to identify their hazards and create practices and safeguards to reduce the dangers they pose.

Reference: Iverson, Roderick D., and Peter J. Erwin (1997) Predicting Occupational Injury: The Role of Affectivity. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 70, 113-128.

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