Q&A: Personality and Safety

hard-hats-wideFor companies in every industry, worker safety is a major concern; companies spent billions of dollars a year on equipment and training aimed at creating a safer workforce. Yet, in 2013 alone, 4,405 U.S. workers died on the job. In this Q&A, Hogan consultant Kristen Switzer discusses the missing component in workplace safety – personality.

1. Why is personality important to workplace safety?

For more than 30 years, Hogan has demonstrated personality’s impact on job performance and organizational effectiveness. For many jobs, safety behavior is one of the most critical aspects of performance. Advances in equipment, technology, and procedures have improved worker safety; however, traditional safety training programs are limited in their effectiveness because they neglect individual worker characteristics. An employee may be your best handler in the warehouse due to their speed and accuracy; however, if they are distractible and drop your cargo, they are also your biggest risk. Unsafe behaviors can be assessed using psychometrically validated measures, and Hogan has identified the personality characteristics predictive of at-risk work behaviors.

2. What personality factors are most relevant to safety behavior?

Research demonstrates a strong relationship between personality and safety-related behavior. Hogan’s core assessment used to predict safe behaviors, the Hogan Personality Inventory, is based on the traditional Five Factor Model and is adapted to predict workplace performance. Behaviors that result in workplace injuries and/or safety-related incidents tend to be exhibited by individuals who are inattentive to details and have difficulty following rules (low Conscientiousness); those who are unable to handle stress or cope with uncertain situations (low Emotional Stability); those who have difficulty getting along with others and prefer to work independently (low Agreeableness); and those who are overly outgoing and seek being the center of attention (high Extraversion). In addition, Hogan conducted many validation studies which further support these results and demonstrate that organizations can use combinations of personality scales to predict workplace safety.

3. Most organizations probably do not consider personality when they try to improve workplace safety. How do you make them see the centrality of this factor?

Anyone who has worked around heavy equipment or machinery—refining, shipping, transportation, construction—knows that accidents occur all too often, and most cases, the accident will be caused by the same small number of people. Supervisors and peers can likely easily identify this group of risk-prone employees, who may even be referred to as “an accident waiting to happen”. Traditionally, accidents have been viewed as a result of faulty design and processes, but we are challenging this mindset. Enhancing protocols and procedures continues to play a key role in safety training; however, individual personality characteristics must be considered as one of the primary sources. Think of any recent safety-related catastrophe in the news and you can often recognize a consistent theme among the majority of accident causes: human error.

4. Once the organization has acquired knowledge about the representation of these personality dimensions in their workforce – how can the knowledge be used in practice to improve workplace safety?

Hogan recommends a comprehensive approach to safety management and improving workplace safety. The safety assessment should be included as part of the hiring process so organizations can start with individuals who have a propensity for safety. To assess the current environment, Hogan recommends a safety climate survey which allows the leadership team to identify problem areas (i.e., equipment, supervisor safety attitudes, co-worker safety) and develop safety performance improvement plans. For those already in the role or new hires, employees should benefit from coaching initiatives around their individual safety assessment results and targets. By focusing on individual safety assessment results, each employee understands how their own personality affects workplace safety and they are each held accountable. Building a safer, more engaged culture requires selecting future employees with a proclivity for safety, recognizing risk-prone employees, and providing resources and coaching.

5. Would you recommend that organizations screen for these personality factors in their recruitment process, or is it better to use SafeSystem for developmental purposes?

Performance issues in safety are often related to poor job fit. To improve job fit, safety-related risks must be assessed as part of the selection process. Let’s think about another type of job—a Customer Service role—from an employer’s perspective. When hiring a customer service representative, an employer looks for characteristics which will lead to better success in the role (i.e., attention to detail, stress tolerance, customer focus). Once on the job, an employer can maximize their success through proper training and development programs, customer service seminars, and on-site coaching. However, any employer wants to ensure that the individual has the core personality strengths to be successful from the start. The same is true for Safety. Safety-related behavior is a major component for many jobs, so safety risks should be assessed as part of the hiring process to ensure good job fit. Further, on-the-job training and development programs will be even more successful by leveraging safety assessment data. Procedures, training programs, and even emergency drills are effective at encouraging employees to act safely, but without understanding an individual’s personality characteristics and risks, these programs will be limited.