Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 320
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

For Safety Sake

A review of 20 years of safety research leads to 3 recommendations.

In 2006, five thousand eight hundred and four people died from work-related injuries and/or illnesses. Four million were injured, but there was nothing special about 2006. Five thousand six hundred and fifty-seven people died in 2007, and five thousand and seventy-one died in 2008.

Workplace safety is a big concern of firm owners. It�s also a concern of researchers, and new safety studies regularly appear. Periodically, it is useful to take a step back, group all recent studies together, and make some conclusions. Doing so allows researchers to measure the strength of past findings and identify opportunities to help. Michael Christian, from the University of Arizona recently completed such a study.

Christian identified 90 relevant studies conducted in the past 20 years and turned his computers loose on the mountain of data that had been collected. When he finished analyzing all the findings, he made these recommendations:

1) We should distinguish between safety compliance and safety performance with our people.

Complying with safety rules is important, but it has proven to have a disappointing ability to prevent accidents. A much stronger effect was measured with safety performance.

Christian defined safety performance as �actions that promote the health and safety of workers, clients, the public, and the environment.� Often, these behaviors are voluntary and go beyond merely complying with safety rules. Christian calls them participatory, and he lists four aspects of safety performance: 1) using personal protective equipment, 2) engaging in work practices to reduce risk, 3) communicating hazards and accidents, and 4) speaking up and identifying policies and practices that threaten safety, i.e. unrealistic output goals.

Christian found that strong safety performance leads to reduced injuries, illnesses, and fatalities, so he recommends that we include �safety performance� as a category in our yearly performance reviews of employees. He believes this attention will help.

2) Make conscientiousness a screening factor in hiring.

Many personality factors have been investigated following the reasoning that people with one type of personality will have a greater or lesser chance of causing an accident. Logic suggests, for example, that people who like to take risks would have more accidents. Mostly, the research has failed to show a connection, with the sole exception of conscientiousness. Christian recommends that we screen for it in hiring decisions, and if personality testing isn�t feasible, he suggests we look for people who set, commit to, and strive to reach personal goals. Look for people who are dependable and responsible. These people, Christian says, are likely to demonstrate voluntary safety actions. They are driven to do so because they are conscientious. They will help us reduce accidents.

3) Communicate a strong and consistent management position on safety.

One of the strongest contributing factors for safety that Christian�s review identified was a climate for safety. He called it organizational safety climate. These are assessments of the well-being of the work climate that are shared by employees. When the safety climate is good, employees feel the work environment is beneficial for their needs. When it is poor, they feel threatened. When the safety climate is positive, safety is rewarded. Safety information is communicated formally through training meetings and informally through casual conversations. There is agreement among employees about which actions are safe and which are unsafe. Christian noted that past researchers have observed that the importance managers place on safety has a positive impact on the performance of discretionary safety behaviors � actions that aren�t required, but are helpful. These, in turn, impact the incidence of accidents.

Finally, Christian emphasized that one intervention consistently improved safety . . . an effort to �improve management commitment to safety,� he said. It seems that competing needs for profitability can confuse management�s position on safety and cause employees to take their focus off of safety. It doesn�t take many accidents to impact profits. We should strive to present a consistent message among all managers and supervisors. This will help.

Reference: Christian, Michael, Jill Bradley, J. Craig Wallace, and Michael Burke (2009) Workplace Safety: A Meta-Analysis of the Roles of Person and Situation Factors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(5), 1103-1127.

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