Safety first

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In a society where human life is seen as paramount, safety at work is rightly a topic of considerable discussion both within organizations and in the media more generally. Whilst some of us at times feel that the concept has been 'overworked' resulting in lip-service and impractical red-tape, it only takes a local tragedy to remind us of the old adage 'it's always best to be safe than sorry'.

We know that the causes of workplace accidents are usually very complex, involving an interaction between aspects such as the physical environment and equipment available; an organization's policies, procedures, and protocols; their management practices; the training received by employees; team and interpersonal relationships; and of course the behaviours and choices made by individuals themselves. In this respect, safety is considered to be 'systemic' and affected by multiple elements working together; no one factor alone is usually to blame for any critical event.

Despite the fact that the causes of accidents are complex and multifaceted, the research does suggest that human factors are involved in 80-90% of work accidents (Hale & Glendon, 1987).  Specifically, the behaviours of individuals have either a direct or indirect impact on the chain of events leading to an accident. Therefore, organizations are beginning to realize that improving the safety culture of an organization not only involves re-designing systems and procedures, but it also involves changing the attitudes and behaviours of individuals currently employed, as well as selecting individuals into the organization who will actively promote and improve safety - the latter being recognized as one of the most proactive approaches to reducing safety related risks at work.

So what individual attributes should we be looking for in selection?
In the past, approaches to selecting for safety have often focused on an individual's tendency towards rule compliance. Undoubtedly being aware of and compliant with safety-related rules and protocols is an important first step to working safely, however, safe working habits involve more than simply knowing and following the safety-related rules and procedures in an organization.

Prescriptive process controls (eg procedures, rules, and regulations) will always lack the variety necessary to guarantee safe behaviour, even if employees are meticulously compliant. There will always be situations in which no rules are available, or in which variations in the local circumstances contradict the applicability of the available rules. Therefore, in a safety sensitive environment an ideal employee is one who can combine rule compliance with a tendency to engage in learning behaviours such as asking questions, seeking feedback, and reflecting on errors and unexpected outcomes. Furthermore, they are likely to be assertive enough to enforce rules and stick to them when appropriate, as well as have the confidence to guide and direct others as needed.

In summary, the body of research on safety points to six individual attributes of employees that are important to promoting a positive safety culture:

  • Showing safety diligence and conscientiousness (which involves aspects such as  adhering to rules and procedures, even when under pressure, and being prepared to confront others in a constructive manner)
  • Being able to cope with pressures (which impacts upon managing stress, fatigue, and distraction at work, all of which affect working safely)
  • Taking proactive responsibility for safety (such as taking responsibility for one's own and others' safety, including offering proactive suggestions for process improvements)
  • Having confidence in your work (such as knowing your boundaries and being prepared to ask others for assistance when these are reached) 
  • Being prepared to communicate safety information (proactively informing and educating individuals and groups as appropriate on safety related matters).

How do organizations traditionally select for safety?
Organizations have a history of attempting to predict the future safety related behaviours of job candidates. Quite commonly, organizations will include a single interview question asking a safety relevant question of their candidates. These questions range from fairly basic and ineffective (eg why do you think you are a safe employee?) to those which are more useful (eg tell me about a time when you witnessed an unsafe act on the job. Talk me through exactly what you did and why, explaining what the outcomes were). The more useful questions in terms of their ability to predict future safety behaviour are behaviourally-based and ask candidates to describe their own past behaviour for a specific incident. Unfortunately, interviewers rarely have the time to ask the number of behavioural questions needed to get a comprehensive measure of the range of individual attributes that affect safety (such as the six key attributes listed earlier), and therefore the interview should typically be seen as only one of several methods used to collect safety relevant information from candidates.

Some organizations will also choose to conduct an activity such as a role play, asking candidates to pretend they are in a specific safety critical scenario and to respond accordingly. Again, there are some good insights to be gained here, however, organizations should be careful not to use role plays as their sole assessment of safety behaviour, as they too do not always assess a wide breadth of behaviours, and they can be prone to eliciting nerves and 'performance' anxiety, due to the unnatural feel of them.

Another option for organizations is to administer a safety questionnaire (otherwise known as a psychometric assessment), aimed at identifying candidates' attitudes and behavioural tendencies when it comes to safety.  Psychometric assessments often offer a highly reliable and practical way to measure individual safety attributes.  Given the questionnaire format, candidates can be assessed on a variety of attributes in a relatively quick and efficient manner, and as all candidates are given the same questions and are scored in a standardized manner, the end result is typically reliable and free from bias.  However, the issue with many of the existing safety questionnaires on the market, is that some of them have been fairly narrow in focus (e.g., looking only at a few key elements such as the tendency for rule following, 'thrill' seeking behaviour, or job-specific safety knowledge).  As such, the propensity for a candidate to behave in other ways which promote a safety culture is largely overlooked.

In addition to the lack of breadth, some safety questionnaires have been criticized for their perceived lack of relevance in the candidates' eyes. Depending on the exact assessment chosen, candidates can report being confused or frustrated as to why they are being asked to complete 'strange' or 'personal' questions. This process sometimes leaves a bad taste in their mouths and a tendency to blame the questionnaire alone, should they be unsuccessful in the broader process.

So how do we select for safety attributes in a quick, comprehensive, and reliable manner?
A new assessment on the market today, called the Individual Safety Attributes Test (ISAT), fills the gap left by more traditional safety questionnaires, offering organizations a comprehensive, timely and reliable way to assess relevant safety attributes of individual candidates. When combined with a good quality interview and subsequent reference checking, the ISAT allows for a thorough yet practical approach for safety selection.

The ISAT achieves the above by asking candidates to respond to a number of work-based, safety critical scenarios, with their responses being compared to those of safety subject matter experts.

The scenarios do not require job-specific knowledge; rather they require the candidate to draw on practical knowledge, or what might be termed by some as 'common sense'. The result is a more 'face-valid' assessment, whereby candidates can clearly appreciate the job relevance of the scenarios they are being asked to respond to.

As the ISAT does not require specific job knowledge, it is suitable for a wide range of roles and industries, including entry level positions. Typically candidates would be asked to complete the 30 minute assessment online prior to an interview or assessment centre, or in an assessment centre itself. 

As a result of the assessment a written report is produced, highlighting the extent to which the candidate shows Safety Diligence and Conscientiousness, Copes with Pressure, shows Responsibility for Safety, has Confidence in their Work, and Communicates Safety Information Proactively; and reference check questions are provided for key areas requiring follow-up (either via the referees or via the interview itself). The result is a more comprehensive approach to assessing safety in selection, which not only helps safety sensitive organization to proactively manage safety risks, but also provides a message to candidates at the point of selection that safety is of the utmost importance to your organization.

About the author
Dr Danica Hooper is state manager and organizational psychologist at People Solutions Australasia. For further information contact Melinda Boxall-Forsythe, senior client advisor, People Solutions Australasia email


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