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Risky Business: How Impulsivity Puts Us at Risk

May 28, 2014

Sometimes it can be tough not to act on our impulses.  We all have that one friend who is constantly doing things on a whim without thinking about the possible consequences.  In fact, you may have some fun stories about things that person has done in the past. However, this type of behavior can put people in harm’s way on the job, and in some cases, it can lead to disastrous results.

In June 2009, Joseph, a railroad employee in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, was struck and killed by a train while performing routine track maintenance.  As recounted by another worker at the scene, Joseph was replacing broken wooden railroad ties when a train began to approach from a distance.  As it is standard practice, the workers took a few steps back to take a short break while they waited for the train to pass.  However, when the train came within 300 yards of the repair site, moving at approximately 80 miles per hour, Joseph realized that he left several ties and a bag of tools on the track.  Fearing that this could cause further damage, he quickly ran back to the track in an attempt to remove them, ignoring the pleas of his coworkers to stay out of the way.  Unfortunately, Joseph misjudged the amount of time that he had to pick up the ties and did not get back off the track before the train came, which killed him on contact. 

Last week I discussed the dangers of not being cautious while performing job tasks.  Another component of the Exhibits Caution factor in the S.A.F.E. model is the tendency for employees to behave impulsively.  This goes beyond simply making a quick mental error; it is based on our tendency to get impatient and our need to make something happen without fully assessing the situation at hand.

97429885Non-impulsive people shy away from potentially risky activities, tend to think before they act, and perceive more risk than others in everyday activities. Meanwhile, impulsive people tend to think and act in the moment.  They often react quickly and on impulse without thinking of all the reasons why they should or should not do something.  These people are often very fun and exciting to be around because they like to make things happen!  They don’t overanalyze things or get stuck in analysis paralysis mode.  However, this aspect of their SafetyDNATM can really put them at risk in hazardous environments.

Although Joseph was well-intentioned, he made the impulsive decision to run onto the track, despite the impending danger coming right at him.  Had he taken a moment to consider the implications of this action, he may not have done so and avoided the events that led to his death. 

People who make frequent rash decisions and act on them without considering potential hazards put themselves in greater danger than those who are more cautious in their behavior - not just at work, but in all areas of life.  For example, driving safety research shows that less cautious people who drive their cars faster and perform more dangerous maneuvers on the road are more likely to cause a traffic accident.  Likewise, workplace safety research has demonstrated that impulsive employees are involved in safety incidents five times more often than those who are more cautious. 

So, what can we do about impulsivity and workplace safety?  One approach is to offer safety coaching and feedback aimed at increasing caution on the job.  This should focus on proactively identifying high pressure work situations that can elicit impulsive behavior, especially for those who tend to be more impulsive. Individuals can be shown how to better recognize these types of situations and how they personally tend to respond at those times, based on their SafetyDNA profile.  This can better equip employees to override their impulsive nature and make safer decisions on the job.

Our Guest Blogger this week is Craig White, a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. 

His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance.  He has six years of research experience at Tier-One universities (Texas A&M University, University of Houston, Rice University), and has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX.  He is also a contract safety services consultant for Select International.

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