On Research

On Research: How do engineering students view safety?


What’s your study about?

This is very much an exploratory work to help us understand how engineering students think about safety, how they conceptualize it. Do they think engineering safety is an important part of their future work? Have they received safety-related education? We’re talking about systems safety. If I’m a young engineer who just entered the workforce and I designed my widget that works within a larger system, how does the thing that I designed contribute to safety outcomes?

What are the biggest takeaways from the study?

Students’ understanding of engineering safety, systems safety and their value of it is quite uneven across engineering majors. Some fields that have had historically large safety failures seem to be more interested in and receive more safety-related education, such as aerospace engineering.

Those who had less positive views and were less knowledgeable about safety may be learning about safety in an abstract way, if they’re learning about it at all.

What surprised you about the results?

Computer science engineering students had a distinctly less positive view about the importance of safety and were distinctly less knowledgeable. That’s concerning because they’ll continue to have this outsized impact on so many of our future systems.

There also may be sort of a public relations issue when it comes to safety. Students in computer science and other majors might see safety as getting in the way of efficiency instead of supporting high-quality work.

In what way does this research directly affect workers?

The relationship between people’s attitudes and safety culture and safety outcomes is quite muddled. But what seems obvious is the way that students conceptualize safety – and how important they think safety is to begin with – will influence the way that early career professionals engage with their work. If you work in an organization where safety is an important part of your work, systems safety needs to be a high priority training for early career professionals.

What other industries could this study impact?

Any industry that has failures that have large-scale consequences and industries that have high-risk activities. Any industry that has high-impact failures would also benefit.

What are the next steps in this research?

We’ve since seen that there are other ways that we could have asked the students about their attitude toward safety. We did analysis that will help us design a better survey in the future.

Another avenue is surveying other engineering institutions to understand what it is that they’re teaching their students about engineering safety and systematic safety.

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