Not invincible

How identifying behavioral traits may improve safety

  • Research suggests that individuals with "riskier" personalities hold more negative safety attitudes, and employees with higher levels of these traits may engage in more risk-taking behaviors that can cause incidents.
  • Employers should approach workers with constructive criticism, supported by factual information, and explain why safety regulations are in place.

By Keith Howard, associate editor

Discovering a worker who is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound is impossible. But according to safety researchers, finding an employee who thinks he or she is invincible against injuries is much more of a reality.

Despite the availability of guidance material and the implementation of behavioral programs to warn against common dangers, some workers still do not believe they will be struck by falling materials, trapped in confined spaces, or suffer debilitating neck and back injuries from improper lifting. 

These workers ignore or fail to recognize the dangers in front of them because of a misguided sense of invincibility. Whether this attitude directly influences how safety guidelines are followed on the job is up for debate. However, experts do agree that identifying and redirecting this misconception may prevent harm and save lives.

Cowboy complex and inexperience

In some rural areas of the country, people may have a “cowboy” mentality, according to Mike Caltagirone, executive director for the Wyoming-Montana Safety Council, headquartered in Cheyenne, WY. To those people, “this is the Wild West, sort of. Areas [here are] just sort of rural and it’s just a whole different atmosphere than you would have in a city,” Caltagirone said. “There’s that mentality where, ‘This is the way I’ve been doing it for 30 or 40 years, and I don’t know any other way to do it,’” he said.

“They may not be hammered with the safety culture – wearing protective safety glasses, wearing certain protective clothing, following safety procedures – and they’re prone to get hurt,” Caltagirone said, adding that younger workers who are relatively uninformed about safety matters often think “they’re invincible, that nothing is ever going to happen to them.”

Because not every employee is going to walk through the door knowing how to follow a strong safety culture, newcomers need more guidance to change their opinions and biases regarding practicing safety at all times in the workplace, Caltagirone said.

“The youth will have that mentality to start with, unless it’s changed by a company’s culture and safety attitude,” Caltagirone said. “That’s just the way it’s going to be. A lot of people, they need to be told [safety procedures], and unless a company has that culture it doesn’t happen.”

‘Stubborn’ workers

Regardless of age, construction workers will always need feedback about the importance of safety, said Doug Robie, safety and risk management director for DEW Construction Corp. in Williston, VT. He also used the word “stubborn” to describe some construction workers.

The size of the business plays an important role in the mindset of the workers and their attitude toward safety, Robie said. “The smaller outfits, generally, [are] very naive [about] OSHA regulations and OSHA protections. Those people are generally the ones that need the most help. It’s almost like they don’t consider themselves under the guidance of OSHA.”

A company with only five or six employees may not place safety at the top of its list, Robie said. Instead, the top priority for the company is to get work done and for managers or supervisors to perform alongside or at the same pace as their crew.

A small operation may have more workers who feel they are safe from injury and can potentially violate more safety rules because only one person may be acting as a supervisor, manager and safety official. This takes away from the supervisor’s time needed to develop a rich safety culture, Robie said. “What’s really going to get their attention is their first visit from OSHA and they have their first serious violations,” he added.

Despite the type or size of the business where an employee works, approaching employees with concrete information is a successful way to educate people about safety, Robie said.

“I think the key with dealing with those people is to have your facts straight – in terms of what the OSHA regulations are, and how you present it,” he said. “We never try to get into a confrontational mode unless we really have to. We try to say, ‘This is the issue and here are the requirements,’ and generally that works out quite well.”

Attitudes impacting safety

Some researchers believe that an employee’s attitude toward safety has a direct impact on whether or not safety precautions are followed. In a study conducted by researchers from Texas A&M University in College Station, a sample of 190 engineering and occupational safety students from two universities was used to examine individual differences when predicting safety-related attitudes.

People who have riskier personalities hold more negative safety attitudes, and previous research suggests individuals with higher levels of these traits tend to engage in more risk-taking behaviors and experience more incidents, according to the study, published in the journal Safety Science (Vol. 47, No. 3).

Of all the individual differences examined, agreeableness, prevention focus and fatalism appear to play the greatest role in predicting safety attitudes and could be useful in the job selection process, researchers found.

Research conducted in Australia supports the claim that overconfident workers exist in the construction industry, and that they feel they are invulnerable to some of the most common injuries.

According to a study published in the Journal of Safety Research (Vol. 42, No. 4) from the University of New South Wales in Australia, construction workers showed significant levels of “optimism bias,” the belief that negative events are less likely to happen to oneself than to others, in relation to health and safety hazards in the workplace.

The study observed significant optimism bias for being struck by materials, being trapped in a confined space, being electrocuted, falling from a height, causing an injury to someone else, breaking safety rules and not replacing safety barriers.

Although the study did not concretely prove that being overly optimistic about a vulnerability to safety hazards did not reduce the level of safety on the job, “the likely presence of optimism bias may affect the degree to which safety behaviors are employed,” the report stated.

Getting through to miners

In the mining industry, some workers would rather deal with serious health problems than wear a respirator or use proper protective equipment for their ears and eyes, according to Barry VanSickle, equipment operator and first aid instructor for Wharf Resources, a mining company in Lead, SD.

“Sometimes it breaks through and sometimes it doesn’t. With some people’s attitude, it’s easier said than done. That’s a culture that [safety officials are] trying to change here,” VanSickle said. “They don’t want a rough and tough miner.”

VanSickle said finding his motivation to convince workers that they are not invincible and to follow regulations – as well as less stringent safety guidelines – comes from the emotions he still feels as a result of an incident in his past.

“My father was actually killed in an underground coal mining accident,” VanSickle said. “My kids are at the age where I was when my father died, and I know how hard it was for my mother to raise my family by herself.”

The actions of some of the “toughest” miners can have serious consequences for their loved ones, VanSickle said, adding “that’s a lot of the reason why I do what I do. That’s a lot of the reason why I got into this – to help people.”

Every day, VanSickle tries to help workers who feel they are invulnerable to incidents to change their attitudes about safety and adopt a more grounded outlook, he said.  “I think you have to change the culture, and that’s what we’re trying to do.” 

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