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Individual Differences in Workplace Safety

05 March 2024

A Focused Approach to Understanding Safety Behaviours in the Workplace

By Andrew Morris

The Critical Role of Workplace Safety

Workplace safety is a critical concern given the substantial human and financial costs associated with accidents, injuries, and fatalities. These unfortunate incidents have far-reaching effects on families, communities, and organisations. In South Africa alone, annual costs related to disablement are estimated between R 1.8 - 2.5 billion (Rikhotso et al., 2022). Contrary to common practice of assessing safety solely through measuring accident rates, safety-related behaviours provide a comprehensive and proactive gauge on safety performance. 


Decoding Safety Performance 

Workplace accidents and injuries largely stem from unsafe work practices by employees (safety behaviours), rather than hazardous working conditions (Garavan & O'Brien, 2001; Hoyos, 1995). These safety behaviours, crucial to safety performance, can be conceptualised similarly to other work behaviours integral to overall performance. Campbell et al. (1996) approach to work performance neatly categorises performance into components, determinants, and antecedents that are important to unpack if one is interested in predicting performance criteria. 


Safety performance components can be categorised into task performance (safety compliance) and contextual performance (safety participation). These categories are crucial in distinguishing safety behaviours in the workplace (Motowidlo, 1994). Performance variability relies on proximal determinants such as knowledge, skill, and motivation. Antecedents, including individual attributes such as ability and personality, contribute to this variability, underlining the significance of individual differences in predicting superior safety performance (Griffin et al., 2000). 


Therefore, these safety behaviours - which we define as actions promoting the health and safety of workers, clients, the public, and the environment - are instrumental in understanding safety performance (Burke et al., 2002). They reflect an individual’s safety motivation - their compliance with safety rules and commitment to safe conduct. An individual differences framework offers a valuable psychological lens through which we can explain variations in safety behaviour and ultimately distinguish between individuals with differing risk profiles and adherence levels. This is because stable tendencies like conscientiousness or risk-taking, consistent across time and contexts, help us make predictions about behaviours that differentiate between individuals on criteria of interest (Beus et al., 2015).  


Personality and Cognitive Ability as Predictors of Workplace Safety 

An individual differences framework dictates that personality and cognitive ability vary between people. These attributes have consistently been highlighted as some of the best predictors of high performance within a work context regardless of the occupation (Sackett et al., 2021). Although findings are mixed when it comes to predicting safety performance, these debates are generally regarding the magnitude of the predictive effect not if it is true (Beus et al., 2015). As such it is still largely true that screening for individual differences on specific attributes is likely to help organisations better predict safety performance in ways that are cost effective and scalable. 


While safety climate, policies, leadership, job characteristics, etc. may play essential roles, individual-level differences in ability and personality will likely still play a substantive role (Wallace et al., 2006; Clarke et al., 2008). Cognitive ability consistently accounts for a significant proportion of variance in work performance for roles of varying complexity (Kulikowski, 2023). Similarly, contextual personality - individual traits required in a particular role - have remained among the top predictors of work performance over decades of research (Sackett et al., 2022). Therefore, utilising personality and cognitive ability to predict possible variations in safety performance is likely to be valid, reliable, and less biased than other methods (Tett et al., 2007). 


Personality: A Cornerstone in Safety Culture 

Within the context of the five-factor model of personality (a widely accepted model of personality), the trait of conscientiousness is noted for its negative correlation with accident involvement and unsafe work behaviours (Cellar et al., 2001; Wallace & Vodanovich, 2003). Conversely, other traits of the five-factor model —neuroticism, extraversion, and agreeableness — have shown a positive correlation with accident involvement (Cellar et al, 2001; Hogan, 2005; Beus et al., 2015). However, Salgado's meta-analytic study in 2002 found no substantive link between these traits and workplace accident involvement. Despite mixed results, at the very least, when viewed independently personality traits and dispositions can be understood as distal factors influencing safety behaviours. However, it is important to recognise that they may still have significant indirect effects when considered within the context of more proximal and influential factors, otherwise encapsulated in a systems approach to safety (Bonsu et al., 2016). Such an approach highlights the impact personality may have on safety behaviours while acknowledging that this influence is likely determined within the context of potentially more salient factors such as safety climate, leadership orientations, policies, etc. (Christian et al., 2009). 


The Incremental Utility of Cognitive Ability 

Given the variation in research conditions, which include work attributes, cognitive ability assessment tools/techniques, and safety performance evaluation methods, past research doesn't provide a unified explanation for the influence of cognitive abilities on safety performance (Vorster et al., 2011). Numerous studies do, however, confirm the utility cognitive capacity has in that cognitive failures are useful in predicting safety-related deficits and workplace accidents (Broadbent et al., 1982; Larson & Merritt, 1991; Wallace & Vodanovich, 2003). In addition, safety behaviours in occupations from drivers to astronauts have been shown to comprise a significant cognitive component (Vetter et al., 2018; Zicat et al., 2018; Pan et al., 2016). Cognitive requirements often include sustained attention, assessment of risks, logical reasoning, decision making, staying alert to abnormalities and hazards, balancing task speed with precision (Hale & Glendon, 1987), and recalling past actions and future tasks (Dornheim, 2000). It should also be borne in mind when considering the incremental validity of cognitive capacity, the secondary yet important aspects that effect job performance that are related to cognitive capacity e.g. forecasting superior learning outcomes (Ackerman et al., 2007; Komarraju et al., 2013), and risk-related decision-making processes (Dohmen et al., 2010) which are also likely to influence safety performance indirectly. It is for this reason that assessing for cognitive ability is an important addition when screening out risk and selecting for safety potential. 


Towards a Safer Future 

The integration of personality and cognitive assessments in personnel selection offers a more holistic, scientifically grounded approach to predicting safety performance. By tailoring recruitment strategies to include these measures, organisations can better identify and hire individuals who are not only proficient in their roles but also inherently inclined towards safer working behaviours. This focused approach not only aids in mitigating workplace accidents but also contributes to cultivating a proactive safety culture. 



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