Construction Safety

Attribution—A Hidden Risk Factor in Construction

Peter Furst | December 22, 2017

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Businessman pointing out something to construction worker

As humans, we are inquisitive. We try to explain things so that we have a rationale (explanation) for their occurrence or existence. This allows us to understand and function better in our environment. This fundamental approach influences our culture, society, and relationships, as well as daily interactions, in subtle and sometimes profound ways.

This curiosity of asking "why" and the approach to trying to explain and figure out things, trying to find a reason or cause for them, has been characterized by scientists and philosophers as basic human activity and interaction. This phenomenon was first studied and discussed by Fritz Heider in the late 1950s to explain human acts and dispositions with The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, which expanded on his creations of balance theory and attribution theory.

Although there are some cultural and personal differences in the making of attributions, there seems to be a universality to the underlying process of trying to understand and give meaning to the world around us (see Figure 1). People can make relatively logical assessments of cause and responsibility in life as well as work situations. Because we perceive the world through our senses, and we make a judgment based on our past experience, we inevitably create a personal reality. This personal reality colors our understanding of the world around us. As a result of this "personal understanding," different people inevitably interpret the world differently and, in turn, reach different conclusions about information, situations, or people.

Attribution Process - Furst - December 2017

Figure 1—The Attribution Process

In psychology, attribution refers to the cognitive process that people use to find reason for either their own behavior or that of others. Researchers found that people tend to make distinctions among behaviors that are caused by personal disposition as opposed to environmental or situational conditions. Attribution is made in four areas, our success or failure, and other people's success and failure.

Attribution and Social Behavior

This process also establishes our reaction or eventual response to information or events. The important distinction is that different people may see the event or hear the information and make a completely different attribution to it. Say that you have a group of people walking the construction site and they all observe a worker engaged in performing a task. Observer A might say to the others, "Did you see the way the worker looked when he lifted the material. It looked like it was way too heavy for him." Observer B might say, "No, no, it looked like he was completely disinterested and bored with the work." Observer C might offer, "I thought he was clowning for his coworker." While Observer D might muse, "It sure looked like he was unhappy to see us looking at him." And Observer E might override everyone by stating that the worker just hurt himself in the lifting of the material. Every one of these observers is going to have a different emotional reaction as a result of the attribution they made.

Observer A might think the worker will get injured due to the heavy loads he is expected to work with. This may lead him to think the project supervision did not make a proper task demand assessment and as a result assigned the wrong worker to do that particular task. This may lead to the conclusion that the project's planning process has some structural weaknesses or that the supervisor's capabilities to manage the crews effectively is deficient.

Observer B might think that this is a classic example of complacency at work, which more than likely will result in an injury, and that supervisors ought to try to make the work interesting to counter this eventuality. This attribution may lead to the suggestion that the task design or demand on this project ought to be reassessed, as well as a reevaluation of task assignment practices by the project's supervision.

Observer C might feel that the project supervision is lacking and the workers are allowed to engage in unsafe behaviors. The suggested intervention may be to focus on the worker who is engaging in unsafe behavior and try to come up with an intervention that eliminates such infractions or that supervisors are not managing the project in a competent and safe manner.

Observer D might think that the worker was doing something he should not have been doing and, as a result, became uncomfortable that he was being observed. This may lead to a determination that the worker is willingly or unwillingly engaged in some form of unacceptable activity that may cause harm to the project or other workers. This worker might be thought of as being incompetent, dishonest, or possibly subversive.

Observer E might state that she just witnessed an accident where the worker just got hurt in the act of lifting the material. The immediate action may be to stop the work and have the worker examined by someone to ascertain the type and extent of the injury. This may also lead to a reexamination of the risks involved with that particular task.

This scenario offers different attribution by five different people observing a worker performing work on site. Though they all saw the same behavior, every one of them made a different attribution. And, more importantly, the different attribution led to different conclusions about the worker, the work, and/or the quality of the supervision or the capability and/or competence of the supervisor assigned to the project (see Figure 2).

Experience-Based Attribution Bias - Furst - December 2017

Figure 2—Experience-Based Attribution Bias

People also tend to interpret their behavior differently than that of others. People are more likely to explain other people's failures in terms of dispositional factors (i.e., caused by a given person's personality) while ignoring the surrounding environmental or situational factors. Conversely, they tend to explain other people's successes as caused by environmental or situational factors.

When it comes to making personal attributions, people are more likely to explain their own successes in terms of dispositional factors (i.e., caused by their personality or innate ability) while ignoring the surrounding environmental or situational factors. Conversely, they tend to explain their failures as caused by environmental or situational factors, which they may think of as beyond their control.

This tendency of people to interpret their behavior differently than that of others is known as attribution bias. People routinely and constantly make attributions to explain or give meaning to behavior. But due to attribution bias, this assignment does not always accurately reflect reality (see Figure 3). Since people invariably are prone to making mistakes, this leads to a biased or sometime false representation of reality. In many cases, this may lead to emotions, understandings, responses, or behaviors that are inappropriate for the given situation, thereby leading to unnecessary problems or difficulties in relationships both personal and professional. 

Attribution Bias - Furst - December 2017

Figure 3—Attribution Bias

Attribution theory also provides explanations for why different people can interpret the same event or information in different ways. This may lead one person to make an assumption about the other person as to not having any "common sense." This tendency to make such an assessment is somewhat common in safety-related situations. I have heard many safety practitioners say this about one of the workers who got injured on one of their company's construction sites. This attribution tends to become a significant barrier to understanding that the cause of the negative event was not the stupidity of the worker but possibly caused by some other salient factors.

One of the things that contributes to disagreements and possible hostility on worksites can emanate from what is known as "hostile attribution bias," which is an interpretive bias. This is where a worker may observe a couple of other workers talking while looking in his general direction. That worker may assume the conversation is about him/her and makes an attribution of hostile intent, even though the other workers' behavior was potentially benign. Research has indicated that there is an association between hostile attribution bias and potential aggression such that people who are more likely to interpret someone else's behavior as hostile are also more likely to engage in aggressive behavior. Knowing this may provide possible ways to defuse potential confrontations or possible reactive aggressive behavior.

A hostile attribution bias does not need to result in aggression or aggressive action in all cases. In safety situations, hostile attribution bias may create a situation that may result in resistance to complying with suggested corrective behavioral actions or work process procedure changes. This understanding may open subtle means for the safety practitioner to more effectively deal with workers on site so as to achieve a more cooperative work environment, safer work practices, and a more productive worksite.

An informed and knowledgeable supervisor may function more effectively when dealing with workers, crews, peers, or others by understanding their tendencies for attribution and the resulting response on their part. This may lead to better managing group interactions and relationships. Such a supervisor will also be able to steer conversations or interaction to neutral ground as a result, avoiding potential barriers to cooperation and more effective teamwork. This ability may prove very effective in coaching and counselling workers to become better at working with others. It may also help workers to have more positive emotions leading to exhibiting a more constructive attitude at work.

Not all attribution is about the cause of the behavior. Sometimes, it leads to the assignment of responsibility for the behavior or the outcome. This is considered responsibility attribution and has been studied by different researchers. For instance, the worker engaged in a task that was difficult and was not given the appropriate tools or enough time will be looked on sympathetically as opposed to one who failed to use proper technique when performing the assigned work. As a result, attribution of responsibility may have significant consequences ascribed to one party or another.

There are other attribution biases as well. For example, researchers have found that sometimes people have a tendency to make self-serving attributions. More often than not, this bias manifests itself in conflict situations. One person may view their behavior as more appropriate, or relevant, than the actions of the other person. We may view ourselves as more competent than the other person or not responsible for the negative result or improper outcome. This then leads to the conclusion that the other person was the cause of the event. In conflicts, this generally leads to unpleasant escalations.

Attributions play a role in the evaluations or assessment of accidents as well. Researchers have found that there is a tendency to attribute more responsibility for a severe accicent rather than for a mild one to an accident's perpetrator. Researchers have also found that when the investigator is somewhat "similar" to the person involved in the accident, they attribute less responsibility to the perpetrator when the accident severity increased. The opposite was found to be true when the perceiver and the perpetrator were somewhat "dissimilar."

Research has also found that attributions of causation is subject to numerous biases or errors. Some proposed sources of attributional "error" is the perception of causation to satisfy the perceiver's personal motivation. This plays a role in the attribution of responsibility or events with negative outcomes. This could involve natural disasters, crises, crime, or accidents. Several researchers have found attributional biases by persons attempting to make sense of or understand seemingly random catastrophic events. Rather than admit that the accident was a random event that happened by chance, victims of such tragedies may attribute some blame to themselves. This enables them to perceive that they had some level of control that they failed to exercise. This in turn gives them the ability to think that they will be able to successfully avoid such a situation in the future. This use of self-blame attribution serves as a coping mechanism in the present situation for workers involved in accidents.

Another aspect of attribution that may affect social behavior results from an attribution that assumes the person could have or could not have controlled the situation. If the outcome is attributed to controllable or intentional causes, the response of the person making the attribution will generally be negative in nature (anger, blame, reprimand, etc.). If the outcome is attributed to uncontrollable or unintentional causes, the resulting conclusion on the part of the person making the attribution will be sympathetic or positive in nature, leading to assistance or support.

Attributions may also be made for communication behavior, such as a facial expression, and body language, observed or perceived, from the speaker's tone of voice. Communication behaviors can be seen as occurring for different reasons as well. Such attribution made by people engaged in a conversation will affect the overall outcome if they are not sensitive to this eventuality and effectively managing the process to achieve a positive result or outcome.


Researchers have identified many different types of attribution biases, all of which impact the way people react and/or respond to one another. Every comment a person makes, every action in which a person engages, and every piece of information a person processes can be subject to attributional analysis or bias by themselves as well as by others. This analysis has the potential for significant implications in the relationship between the two. It will potentially affect the way they respond or view each other. The attributional processes are vital as well as consequential to interpersonal communication and relationships. From a larger perspective, this may have an indirect impact on internal processes, external relationships, and ultimately the outcome of organizations for whom these people work. 

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