It is hard to imagine an area of organizational intervention that can have a more profound impact on people’s lives than safety. Whether it is ensuring the well-being of employees, limiting the impact of our products and services on the public, or protecting the environment, steps taken to prevent harm are increasingly front and center.
While definitions, philosophies, and methods abound when it comes to workplace safety, we believe safety is best characterized as a way of thinking. One school of thought which has been increasingly applied to safety over the years is Human Performance (HP). Many aspects of HP are based in part on the pioneering work of Dr. James Reason in the field of human error. HP recognizes the simple truth that all people make mistakes and stresses the importance of minimizing situations that induce errors – as well as the consequences of those errors. In fact, the HP model views organizational weaknesses as the greatest causes of human error which are often just a symptom of those weaknesses.
The HP literature often highlights five guiding principles:
People are fallible, and even the most accomplished workers make mistakes.
Error-likely situations exist. They are predictable, manageable, and preventable.
Individual behavior is influenced by organizational processes and values.
People achieve high levels of performance because of encouragement and reinforcement from leaders, peers, and subordinates.
Events can be avoided through understanding why mistakes occur and applying lessons from past events – lessons learned.
To push our analysis further, the human error literature has identified two broad categories of errors:
Active errors – events that happen on the front line, in real time with immediate feedback or negative consequences
Latent organizational weaknesses – things like inattentive leadership, faulty engineering, or poorly prepared support staff which may lie dormant and often have no immediate feedback or negative consequences until later
The two types of errors should be contrasted with outright violations which are intentional deviations from known rules or policies.
Through the systematic study of human performance across various situations, we have been able to understand conditions under which errors are more likely to occur. These conditions or “error precursors” can be further defined into four broad categories:
General human characteristics
A few examples of these types of error precursors are provided in Table 1, below:
Table 1: Four Types of Error Precursors
Taking this perspective on safety can help organizations identify these types of error precursors in daily operations so they can take steps to either eliminate them (often through design and engineering efforts) or equip employees with tools to help them avoid errors in these situations.
People & Errors
While it is true that all humans make mistakes – especially when these types of error precursors are present – it is important to consider that not all individuals are equally susceptible to error, or to the same types of errors. Individual differences in characteristics such as personality traits and abilities are not equally distributed across the general population – or even within industries or organizations. For example, we know from research on cognitive ability that people vary significantly on abilities such as problem solving, attention span, and working memory, just to name a few. There is also substantial evidence that these variations in cognitive abilities are related to job performance (Schmidt, 2002; Murphy, 1989). Similarly, personality research shows significant differences on stable traits such as cautiousness, compliance, and orderliness (components of the well-documented Big Five personality factor model) that are related to job performance (Borman, 2004; Hogan & Foster, 2013). Therefore, the role of the individual and their unique characteristics are factors that should be considered along with their working environment across a wide variety of performance measures.
Decades of research in Industrial/Organizational Psychology have identified various stable individual factors that are linked to, not only job performance, but specifically to safety-related outcomes. When measured using validated psychometric assessments, people’s scores on these factors show statistically significant correlations with at-risk behaviors and injuries (Beus, Dhanani & McCord, 2015; Christian, Bradley, Wallace, & Burke, 2009). Based on these meta-analytic studies, which each looked at dozens of studies over the years, along with research we have conducted in several industries, we developed a four-factor model of individual factors that we refer to as SafetyDNA®:
- Control – emotional control and locus of control
- Awareness – ability to see and remember details and avoid distraction
- Rules – attitudes regarding existing policies and procedures
- Caution – comfort level with risk and impulsivity
Individuals who score significantly lower on these traits tend to engage in more at-risk behaviors and be injured more often compared to those with higher scores, even when accounting for their level of job experience and the overall risk level of their job.
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Safety and the Interaction of People with Environments
It must be stated that these individual factors should NOT be treated as any sort of “root cause” or the principle reason for why an individual may engage in unsafe practices or sustain an injury. Many other conditions outside of the individual must be considered (e.g., equipment, training, leadership, task complexity) – including error-likely situations such as those highlighted in the HP literature. However, SafetyDNA traits add an important layer of data and represent the unique behavioral patterns that any person will typically bring into a work situation where risk is present.
While the HP literature talks a lot about all the types of situations, precursors, and conditions that increase chances of error, it does not fully address stable differences across individuals. This information about the person can add value by proactively indicating the types of situations or tasks where a person is more likely than others to make specific errors that can increase their exposure to risk. The SafetyDNA model provides us with person-level variables that can interact with situational variables in unique ways depending on the combination of person and situation. Table 2, below, provides some simple examples.
Table 2: Example Interactions Between Individual Traits and Error-Likely Situations
Work environments today are increasingly complex and dynamic. Safety practitioners and leaders must develop an increasingly broader view and consider more holistic approaches to injury prevention and other safety issues. HP concepts and tools have been around for some time and can add great value by addressing situations that are known to induce errors and increase injury risk. However, human behavior is not 100% dependent on situational factors; research shows that individuals still respond somewhat differently to the same environment and situations based on stable, measurable differences in ability, personality, and other related characteristics.
If we can leverage that information to better predict potential errors that can lead to significant injury or death, why not do so? By minimizing error traps and proactively enabling employees with information about which error traps they are more susceptible to in their unique environment, a more holistic approach to safety can be achieved. If your organization is interested in improving safety, please let us know so we can discuss how our SafetyDNA solutions can help you in your safety journey.
This blog was written in collaboration with Esteban Tristan, Ph.D., Director of Corporate Safety Solutions at PSI Services. He works with global organizations across various industries, providing psychological assessments, learning systems, coaching and related tools that help organizations improve their safety performance. Dr. Tristan has over 15 years of experience implementing selection and development processes for companies in North America, Asia Pacific, Latin America and Europe. He is a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) and the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) and has published articles in professional journals such as International Journal of Selection and Assessment, Journal of Organizational Psychology, Journal of Safety Research and EHS Today. Esteban is also a frequent speaker at national and regional safety conferences throughout the US.