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How Much Does Personality Actually Affect Workplace Injuries?

March 2, 2016

workplace-injury.jpgBefore you read this, please fill in the blank in the statement below.

“I believe that all injuries are ________.”

What word comes to mind? Did it just happen to be the word “preventable?” If so, that’s not a big surprise. It seems that leaders in all organizations these days are trying to ingrain this belief into their people, and there is merit behind it. Although zero injuries is very difficult to achieve, most agree that there is great value in upholding this belief in everything we do. After all, if we don’t think an incident can really be prevented, why bother removing hazards or engineering safer workplaces?

Promoting this type of attitude across an organization is an important part of a strong safety culture. It’s something we can impart on employees through communications, training, decisions, and many other actions. In other words, we can teach or train people to believe that they can prevent any injury from happening. But what if some people were more naturally inclined to have this belief? Could some individuals be more inclined to perceive that their actions really make a difference?

The answer

The answer is ‘Yes’ and it is based in a well-known personality trait called locus of control. Based on the work of Julian Rotter (1954), locus of control refers to the extent to which a person believes that they are in control of what happens to them. There are two ends of a continuum – internal and external. Individuals with an internal locus of control tend to believe that they can control future events that will happen in their life through their own personal actions and decisions. On the other side of the continuum are individuals with an external locus, who generally believe that events in their life are controlled by external circumstances, such as luck or fate.

Last week we introduced the first factor in the S.A.F.E. Model of SafetyDNA, which is Stays in Control. We discussed that this is made of two components: Emotional Control and Locus of Control, which is our focus here. Locus of control has been studied for decades and has been linked to many behaviors and outcomes in education, health, job performance and satisfaction, and career success.

It makes sense if you think about it – taking ownership of your life and your actions can lead to many positive outcomes. If I believe that I can have success through preparation and hard work, I am more likely to do those things because I believe they will pay off. But if I believe that success is all due simply to luck, being in the right place at the right time, and knowing the right people, why would I try to prepare and work hard?

How does this fit in to safety?

The same thing holds true in safety. We all possess a locus of control that ranges somewhere on the continuum between internal and external. Those of us on the external side tend to have a natural attitude of “Stuff happens…there’s nothing you can do about it.” This is not necessarily a good or a bad thing; there are times when we simply do not have control of a situation and having an external locus can help us to cope effectively.

But in terms of safety, having an external locus of control can mentally ‘hard wire’ us to believe we cannot really prevent some safety incidents because there are too many factors outside of our control. People with an internal locus, in contrast, find it naturally easier to believe that they can prevent an injury from occurring because they see everything as something they can their control.

Research on locus of control and safety behaviors supports this link. Studies have shown that employees with an internal locus of control tend to be injured more often, be involved in more driving-related accidents, and have significantly higher injury-related medical costs compared to those with an internal locus of control. Therefore, it is important to know our own locus of control, and ask ourselves whether it may be influencing our beliefs around injury prevention. Do we truly believe all injuries can be prevented? If not, do we have the same beliefs about other events that are not related to safety?

If you are curious about this, there are validated assessments available that can provide you with an accurate measure of your own locus of control. There are benefits and challenges associated with both sides (internal and external) of the continuum, even within the context of safety. But regardless of what your locus is, it is important to know what your ‘starting point’ is and how it can influence your attitudes on safety and injury prevention.

Even if we don’t know our locus of control, there is still great value in monitoring ourselves to assess whether we feel like we can be in control of our own safety. This is why locus of control is a key component of the Stays in Control factor. As with any part of our SafetyDNA, the more we know about ourselves, the more we can avoid risks and improve our personal safety every day.

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Christian, M.S., Bradley, J.C., Wallace, JC. & Burke, M.J. (2009). Workplace safety: A meta-analysis of the roles of person and situation factors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1103-1127.

Jones, J.W. & Wuebker, L.J. (1993). Safety locus of control and employees’ accidents. Journal of Busienss and Psychology, 7, 449-457.

Rotter, J. B. (1954). Social learning and clinical psychology. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Roy, G.S. & Choudhary, R.K. (1985). Driver control as a factor in road safety. Asian Journal of Psychology and Education, 16, 33-37.

Wuebker, L.J. (1986). Safety locus of control as a predictor of industrial accidents and injuries. Journal of Business and Psychology, 1, 19-30.

Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Corporate Safety Solutions at PSI. 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.