Australian 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.