Dangerous personalities making work unsafe – really?

Pages from dangerous-personalities-making-work-unsafe-1Australian recruiting firm, Sacs Consulting, has released the findings of a survey entitled “Dangerous Personalities making work unsafe“.  Such surveys are predominantly marketing exercises and usually, as in this case, there is a limited amount of data available but the results are often broadly distributed and add to the discussion about workplace safety.

The headline itself is a red flag to occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals who are old enough to remember the debate about “blaming the worker” for OHS breaches, injuries and illnesses.  Most safety managers and corporate safety programs are applying a “no blame” philosophy to combat the worker focus but the reality is that workers are still being blamed and being dismissed for safety breaches.  The Sacs Consulting survey confirms the growing worker focus by looking at the personal rather than the organisational.

The Sacs study found:

“…that some people still ignore OHS rules and act unsafely in the workplace, whereas others value their own safety and that of their colleagues so actively that they try to improve the safety of their workplace. Using personality and values testing, the study was able to predict whether an individual is more or less
likely to be safe at work.” (page 1)

The survey results state that:

  • “…men are more diligent and committed than women to being safe at work.” (page 4)

  • “Women are less likely to participate in OHS practices and are more likely to disobey their organisation’s rules.” (page 4), and

  • “…older workers 45+ tend to display more safety-conscious attitude and more diligent safety behaviours than younger workers.” (page 4).

In the media release (not available online) accompanying the survey. Managing Director, Andrew Marty, says that

“It was surprising to find just how much individual factors like personality and values predicted safety behaviour…”

It is this belief in prediction that is most worrying.  Prediction discounts the organisational factors affecting workplace safety.  SafetyAtWorkBlog asked Marty about this.

“Q: Organisational factors such as culture, workload, hours of work and others have been reported as major influences on worker safety and attitudes to safety. Did the survey consider the organisational culture in which the respondents work?

AM: There have been numerous studies addressing this question ….. Culture is a major determinant of safety, workload and hours of work are not until they engender measurable fatigue, which is shown to be a predictor of safety outcomes. The way to look at this is that we have shown that 37% of a person’s safety behaviour at work is determined by internal characteristics such as their personality and value set, some proportion of what is left is attributable to issues such as corporate culture, which is determined mainly by local leaders in each work group – ie the local supervisor.”

Many companies in Australia are spending a great deal of time educating (indoctrinating?) their workforces on the safety values that are expected by everyone working in the company and on projects.  Companies are trying to establish a commonality of safety values that support the leadership push of a zero harm vision and to satisfy client expectations that workers will not be injured or killed in the delivery of products and services.

The survey talks about “personality and values” but these should be separable elements of safety behaviour.  Personality may be able to change but usually only with the cooperation of the individual.  Values do change through training, information and experience.  The survey findings may indicate support for this with its findings about older workers.

The Sacs Consulting survey states that

“For employers concerned about OHS and are keen to reduce workers compensation costs, time lost to injury and associated productivity costs, screening their staff may be a shortcut to achieving better safety outcomes.” (page 7)

This may be true in the short term but to develop a more sustainable and mature business, companies and organisations need to assess and analyse their corporate approach, their organisational culture and the values of the organisation to embed the importance of their employees’ safety, health and welfare.  “Screening” staff  may be a shortcut but shortcuts are often the bane of workplace safety.

SafetyAtWorkBlog asked about this point:

“Q: You recommend employee screening (page 7) as “a shortcut to achieving better safety outcomes”. In focusing on the worker, is this a contemporary take on “blaming the worker” for issues that are beyond their control?

AM: This is a very good question.  I believe it is the pursuit of a more ethical employment approach where people who have predispositions to acting safely are put in appropriate roles, as are those who are not.  The alternative is that we put someone who has measurable characteristics which suggest that they may be unsafe into a risky job.  I am very uncomfortable about the ethical considerations of putting this person into such a role and physically endangering them and their colleagues.”

As with most matters ethical, discussion and debate is needed for clarification.  I hope that readers can provide some clarification.

The survey report ends with this statement:

“Employers that are not screening for personality and values may be putting their employees and their workplace at unnecessary risk.” (page 7)

Putting employees at risk is prohibited by OHS/WHS laws and Sacs Consulting are implying that employee screening may be an effective way reducing safety risks.  A counter argument would be to minimise the risk prior to employment as well as having systems in place that explain the company’s safety-related values and educate the employees on how to work more effectively and safely in line with the company’s safe system of work.  This should all work within an organisational structure that values its employees and removes the risk of harm as much as they can.

People live in a society and they work in a company-based society. In either circumstance, the context in which we live must be considered in all safety decisions.


Kevin Jones

16 thoughts on “Dangerous personalities making work unsafe – really?”

  1. I see the argument for Safety parallel to that of Quality, mounted many years ago. Professor Edward Deming stated (and supported with heaps of statistical information), that 85% of situations are inherent within the system of work and only 15% are the result of contextual variation (such as an inattentive worker, time of day etc). Seems like SACS should read that work before launching with their small data sample and obvious marketing skew!!

  2. In response to the Safety Institute of Australia running an article on the Sacs Consulting research, Leo Ruschena​, Senior Lecturer – OHS at RMIT University wrote the following to the SIA and has allowed me to publish it here as a comment.

    Dear Editor

    I am amazed at the SIA publishing the \’news\’ item by SACS Consulting promoting psychological screening out of workers who lack motivation in safety.

    Back in the 1950s there was a similar push to improve safety by identifying \’accident prone\’ workers. This idea was so mainstream that Walt Disney made a cartoon on this which readers may wish to have a laugh at and can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2MzC4Ue0Zw .The focus is on the poor attention to safety of the worker, and never mind the multiple instances of unguarded machinery that he falls into that would have multiple prohibition notices applied by a modern regulator.

    SACS uses a similar spiel, and interestingly focuses on the Health and Community Sector. It would be interesting how SACS would explain how a \’motivated\’ worker would be any safer if required to lift a bariatric patient if the hospital was understaffed and had not provided appropriate lifting equipment. Or how a \’motivated\’ ambulance officer or emergency nurse would be any safer dealing with an ice-crazed patient who threatened or actually acted out violence.

    A very recent article in Safety Science (2014 (70), pp 211-221) describes a very large survey of safety issues within the Swedish health system. Interestingly, it identifies than many of the problems that cause both physical and psychological injury to the workers are organisation initiated (under-staffing, inappropriate reporting and computer systems, labour hire staff that are not fully cognisant of the hospital systems, etc), and it is actually the motivation and professionalism of the staff that holds it all together. However this inevitably has a toll of psychological burnout.

    Such causation would not be news to an OHS professional who has understood this though the multiple writings of numerous authors in the past 20 years. The work of James Reason is probably the best known in dealing with the organisational causes of accidents.

    It is both tragic and laughable that the idea of the accident prone worker, or similar, be raised again. Yet a reputable company is pushing exactly that theme. Kevin Jones has interviewed the representative of SACS and this is available in his SafetyAtWorkBlog. This is worth a read to understand where they are coming from. (http://safetyatworkblog.com/2014/09/).

    The world is more complex than Walt Disney or SACS would have us believe, and the causation of accidents is more complex that simply focusing on \’unmotivated\’ workers. Employers have a legislated responsibility to provide a safe workplace, not push back the responsibility to cope with an unsafe workplace onto a \’motivated\’ worker.


    Leo Ruschena​ CFSIA​
    Senior Lecturer – OHS
    School of Applied Science

  3. The question of whether to blame the system and the culture or the worker is, in my experience, not straightforward. Certainly it is absolutely necessary that business have effective systems that meet legislative (legal) and moral expectations; and that management lives and breathes the company OH&S values and assures rules are followed. Without such leadership consistently “leading from the front”, employees will operate in accord with past practices that they have found to be acceptable and normal.

    Today’s work structure generates significant movement of people; and this is particularly evident in the Construction Industry. Safety expectations and rules very often differ from project to project: from leading edge (the highest priority of the client such that the project MUST assure safety as a condition of obtaining full payment for work done) to laissez-faire, with virtually no leadership, allowing for the Australian “she’ll be right mate” approach; and enabling personnel to make statements such as “what are you, a wimp?” that ‘shames’ many others to conform to poor safety practices within the team in which they work.
    Thus, for construction personnel who move from project to project where they see OH&S inconsistently applied, it is no wonder they often have a less than perfect attitude to OH&S.

    It is a well understood that cultural change takes significantly greater time than legislative (rule) change. Thus, my view is that what is considered poor attitudes is very often a result of changed expectations not being accepted by people until it is seen as the “new norm”; it is the new culture. It is therefore incumbent upon:
    – All businesses and teams to consistently assure strong OH&S leadership in accord with current ethical, legislative and legal expectations.
    – Clients to draft project management contracts appropriately to drive OH&S conformity with current expectations.
    This will, over time, help assure appropriate consistent attitudes to OH&S.

  4. It is a non serious an unethical marketting intent for selling personalities test for selecting people for jobs. This kind of survey could be considered, with faith, only as an indicator of the need of serious researching. But the insistence of the authors about the results and its implications become very poor credible the poor results description in the document.

  5. \”Employers that are not screening for personality and values may be putting their employees and their workplace at unnecessary risk.\”

    I don\’t believe this statement of Mr Marty\’s is consistent with Australian W/OHS legislation which calls for assessing and controlling/reducing risks in the workplace. It makes no reference to assessing the risk inherent in particular workers.

  6. Isnt this what we call an interview. Yes i agree before hiring someone you meet and discuss certain items. As the interviewer, i will pick up on certain things and make my own analysis if this person will become an assett or a liability, will they bring us closer to our goals or further away.

  7. I wonder if management would ever subject themselves to such testing to determine their suitability for their roles? Perhaps that would uncover a scary level of psychopathic personality?

  8. A wise old man told once when I was espousing the virtues of statistical analysis that the results do not give the real picture. He told me that if I had one foot in a bucket of ice water and the other in a pot of boiling water, then statistically I’m comfortable.

    I also know that you can stack the sample to provide the result you want which is why I agree with Les that 1400 responses are woefully inadequate to provide any realistic and meaningful data to support a position.

  9. I would suggest that in recruiting staff I find it easy to \”screen\” prospective employees by asking \”tell me about the biggest safety lesson you have learned outside of a classroom\”. The answer and the interviewers acceptance or rejection of the suitability of the answer is probably a more reliable screening method than a commercial screening process.
    Or because that is not quantitative it is therefore a less reliable predictor? Or, as happened recently, when a candidate reveals in conversation prior to formal questions at interview that he and a mate got wasted at the weekend but driving was ok because they didn\’t get caught, I drew a conclusion that the candidate was a risk taker with a poor attitude towards his and others\’ safety.
    Would the Sacs methodology have identified that, aside from the ethical issue of the person\’s attitude to drink driving, this candidate would potentially cause disruption to the business because when he loses his license he would not be able to get to work on time by public transport? My cynical 2 bobs\’ worth!

  10. The approach of the study is similar to the work of Donald Eckenfelder, although he goes much further in his considerations of values. I have a real concern that the world of safety is, in the words of ex-Treasurer Wayne Swan \”sweating the small stuff\” – something he says he does when he was out of his depth (!). The mechanisms by which someone gets dust in their eye are not the same as the ones that will kill, and the concentration, especially of the behaviourists, on the small stuff detracts from the higher energy hazards that kill.
    I believe we need to change the current paradigms, and re-focus on the science of safety, especially from the engineering aspect of hazard mitigation. We know that humans are reliably unreliable, and we just need to recognise that in our controls.
    Changing a person\’s beliefs, so that they can change their values, is difficult, expensive, and unreliable. Changing the control of damaging energies is much easier, and much more predictable.

    1. David, I agree that the behaviouralists have the upper-hand by having the ear of the \”c-suite\” but part of the prominence is that the engineeringists(?) have failed to continue to argue their case over the last few decades and have allowed the behaviouralists an opportunity. Part of this is due to the traditional split between the OHS and HR professions encouraged by parallel developments in concepts and language.

      Humans may be \”reliably unreliable\” but I have seen first-hand some remarkable turnarounds in safety performance through introducing and maintaining a collaborative values-based approach to safety but such an approach still requires evidence to verify this approach.

  11. Thanks Kevin,

    I wonder \’considered by whom to be \’normative\’ and which population it is supposed to represent?

    I wonder how many front line workers would have seen much less responded to such a survey (this may be why it is such a relatively small number too???).

    I do note that they reference \’1400 professionals across all industries\’ so does this mean the extrapolations made only apply to professional and not to other workers?

    If that is the case then the extrapolations regarding females likelihood may be related to \’glass ceiling\’ type issues and the thought that some females might hold that they need to be \’macho\’ to break through.

  12. Hmmm. Could this be another method of using a crystal ball. Unfortunately it does not predict the clouding of the ball when things are not so clear, or when stressors in the work place impact and result in an irrational activity or action.

    Is this a means of heading towards a cleansing society that we are all allocated specific roles or tasks and don’t get to do what we might have trained and educated for or follow our dream or passion– Sory mate you are recommended to be a sanitation collector! Sounds a bit like the new movie “Divergent”. Wasn’t there a guy who wanted to do something similar in the 1940’s?

    1. Stephen, I doubt that this is unique to Sacs Consulting. I am uncomfortable with this type of \”prediction\” but I know that the HR sector state that employee screening is simply one tool that can be used in making a decision about a prospective employee. I accept this but the language used in such research seems to give more prominence to these tools than they often merit.

      The website, The Conversation, recently posted an article about personality tests – \”Why using Myers-Briggs at work Might Be a Terrible Idea (MBTI)\”. There was an earlier article which stated:

      In Human Resource Management in Australia, Helen De Cieri and Robin Kramar wrote: “It appears that the use of personality tests for recruitment purposes in Australian organisations is increasing despite criticism of them as unreliable and unethical.” They quoted a survey of 8000 people, in which 44% regarded personality tests as personally invasive – which they are. Yet a survey of Australian human resource managers showed that 69% believed that personality tests are valuable tools that can be used to improve performance.

      I want to understand the safety management potential of such tests so that I can better understand my Human Resources colleagues, but the issue is labyrinthine.

  13. Hi Kevin,

    I\’ve commented several times before on LinkedIn about the value of such small scale studies that are used to extrapolate \’global\’ findings.

    I note this study (as published) does not provide any breakdown of the \’more than 1400\’ respondents to the survey.

    1400 is a very small sample in a multi-million workforce and with no information about the numbers of respondents in each category it is hard to lend any credence to this \’study\’ other than to see it as a \’marketing tool\’ for SACs personality type testing in recruitment processes.

    1. Les, I specifically asked whether the survey sample could be representative of Australian Society. Sacs Consulting\’s Andrew Marty responded:

      \”Samples like this of over 1000 people are considered to be “normative” – ie typical of the population they are drawn from. The profile of this sample is of employees in a wide range of sectors and can be assumed to be representative of this population of employees.\”

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