Skip to Content
Construction Safety

Employee Attitudes and Accidents

Peter Furst | December 4, 2015

On This Page
Rear doors of an ambulance

One of the main focuses of safety practitioners is to help reduce workplace injuries. The primary means of accomplishing this generally involves more training and greater focus on inspections to ensure hazards are controlled so that workers may perform their tasks safely and possibly some form of discipline for failure to comply or reward to induce compliance.

This approach focuses on the workers and tries to affect some form of change in their behavior. These interventions certainly may have some short-term impact, but they really do not address the underlying causes, nor do they have any lasting long-term effect.

In conversations with various safety personnel from a number of construction organizations of different sizes and levels of sophistication, the overarching conclusion was that one of the predominant reasons for accidents involves the worker's attitude toward safety. To give them their due, there are compelling reasons to suggest that specific attitudes workers hold may well be associated with occupational injuries, as shown by various studies conducted by a number of researchers. The question then becomes how these folks arrived at this conclusion and, more importantly, what specific approaches they took to deal with the stated problem.

I asked them to elaborate as to how they made this determination and how they went about addressing this issue. I was told that the workers' attitudes were manifested in how they performed their work. The workers with "wrong" safety attitudes violated safety rules, didn't always use their personal protective equipment, became complacent in how they performed their work, cut corners, and rushed. They also did not follow good safe work practices, follow directions, utilize the safety training they received, watch out for hazards, and, more importantly, take responsibility for good safe practices. These actions represent a poor safety attitude.

As for interventions, I was told that refresher training sessions were used to remind the workers of rules and safe work practices. Others tried more rigorous inspections to find the offenders and talk or reason with them. Some mentioned coaching (the sports aficionados), who talked about using sports analogies to drive safety home to the workers. Some talked about paying attention to the language used in the coaching process; others mentioned assigning another worker to act as a partner or mentor to remind the person with the "bad attitude" to follow the rules. A few mentioned providing feedback to workers who were breaking the rules. Others implemented or activated their disciplinary program (three strikes and you're out) to drive the point home. Some said they implemented an incentive program. A couple said they were thinking about implementing a behavioral process to deal with the offenders.

It may be true that some of the stated reasons may contribute to accidents, but do they necessarily speak primarily to the workers' attitudes regarding safety? There may be a number of reasons why these workers behave the way they do. The "wrong" behaviors may result from poor planning, the proper equipment not being readily available, challenging production goals, or not enough time to carry out the required amount of work. The training received may not address the specific situation workers find themselves in. The task's demand, lack of appropriate and relevant information, or a mismatch between the task and the worker's capabilities may also be factors ... the list could go on for many more paragraphs. But, more importantly, the interventions mentioned were the same ones used for any other categorization of the problem, which speaks to a general lack of understanding of attitude formation and how to manage and change them.

It may be worthwhile to address behavior at this point. Some of the more sophisticated safety practitioners may go the behavior modification route by trying Behavior-Based Safety as a way to modify their workers' actions and work practices. Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) was all the rage in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the weaknesses of this approach was that it was primarily focused on the worker and did not address some of the underlying system-driven factors that impact the worker's decisions. Because of these limitations and plateaued improvements, many of the consultants who were involved with early BBS implementations have since changed their focus from just the worker to include leadership (management). This is because leadership has a profound impact on the way workers behave at work.

Another interesting factor is that virtually all the safety improvement interventions mentioned are compliance driven and extrinsic in nature and, as a result, have limitations. That may be one of the reasons why progress toward a zero-injury goal has stalled. A more effective approach to the creation of an injury-free work environment may be through the use of intrinsic drivers associated with the use of the planned behavior theory that can positively influence safety, attitude, and behavior.

Attitude and Safety

Assuming that most of the obvious safety risks are identified and successfully dealt with and the system risks are accounted for and neutralized, it may be prudent to look at attitude as a means to improving safety results because dealing with attitude without addressing the above will not enable the worker to be able to achieve the expected safe behavior. With intrinsic drivers (a positive attitude toward safety) and true motivation to be safe, it is highly likely that it would result in fewer reportable incidents.

One may be able to discern a worker's attitude by observing his or her behavior. Attitude reflects a person's body of beliefs and emotions associated with the organization's policies, procedures, and practices, as well as its leadership's action and management methods, along with the organizational climate and culture. We may have a number of beliefs about a certain subject, but only a few salient ones affect our attitudes. The worker's safety attitude may be influenced by his or her perception of the work environment (climate).

Almost all of the interventions mentioned herein use an extrinsic approach to accident prevention. Working on improving workers' attitudes toward safety necessitates an intrinsic mechanism to improve safety results. Given that workers' attitudes impact their behavior and their behavior may result in an accident, doing something about their attitudes will more than likely result in a more effective approach. Since it is intrinsic by nature, it will prove to be sustainable as well. To accomplish this, we need to have a better understanding of attitude and how it is created before we can go about trying to replace an unacceptable one with a more desirable one.

Attitude Overview

According to research, learning can account for most of the attitudes we hold. Attitude is responsible for how we react to conditions; appraise and judge people; and respond to situations, ideas, or things. Attitudes are created by first creating beliefs. People collect information about the world around them. How they are affected by this creates their beliefs (cognitive learning). Beliefs underlie attitudes and may be true or untrue. Untrue beliefs may be influenced and changed by providing accurate information, while ones that are true may be influenced in the right direction by changing the operational and/or organizational systems.

Attitude serves as a way for people to organize their interaction with the world. This makes things more predictable and manageable for them. Attitudes allow for the classification, evaluation, and summarization of the vast amounts of information that people receive and process on a daily basis. People usually use their perceived attitudes of others as a means to arrive at a judgment about them. Attitude similarities among people tend to increase likability and acceptance. Attitude also acts as a predictor of behavior.

Basically, attitude has three components—emotional, cognitive, and behavioral (see Figure 1). Each one of these components is very different from the other and they can build on one another to form our attitudes and, therefore, affect how we relate to the world. It is important to remember that the behavioral component is the only one that is observable. The emotional and cognitive components can only be inferred. Attitudes can also be explicit or implicit. Explicit attitudes are those that we are consciously aware of and that clearly influence our behaviors and beliefs. Implicit attitudes are unconscious, but they do have an effect on our beliefs and behaviors. Because of their nature, they are somewhat more difficult to influence or change.

Figure 1—Components of Attitude

Components of Attitude
  • The emotional component involves a person's feelings toward or about a person, place, event, issue, or thing. In other words, it is the person's disposition toward something.
  • The cognitive component consists of the knowledge, information, and beliefs a person has about something. It controls how a person understands and thinks about things. Cognition includes beliefs, preferences, and other aspects that shape how people respond to or interpret the world around them.
  • The behavioral component consists of a person's tendencies to function or behave in a certain way toward others or situations.

There is another aspect of attitudes to consider—its evaluative element. Attitudes can be positive, negative, or neutral. They may occasionally be conflicted (see Figure 2). Some research has found that if a person is exposed to a certain person, place, or thing over a long period of time, his or her attitude may change. It may go from negative to neutral or from neutral to positive. Behaviors or attitudes that are followed by positive consequences are reinforced and are more likely to be repeated or internalized than are behaviors and attitudes that are followed by negative consequences. Observations determine the responses we learn, but reinforcement determines the responses we express.

Figure 2—Evaluative Effect of Attitude

Evaluative Effect of Attitude

The way safe behavior is affected at the worksite depends on a series of steps (see Figure 3). First, workers become aware of a stimulus. Then they think about it and process it. While processing the information, they generally have an emotional response to it, which shapes the resulting behavior the workers engage in. 

Figure 3—Safety Attitude Toward Safety

Safety Attitude Toward Safety

Before doing something in response to a stimulus, we engage in a thought process. Thinking results in a decision, which forms our intention. This behavioral intention is based on two factors (see Figure 4), one of which is personal and the other social. The personal factor reflects our attitude toward performing that behavior and how important it is to us. The social factor reflects the importance of what others would expect or want us to do and how important that is to us. This is usually subjective, as we make assumptions about what others may think or how they would expect us to respond or act.

Figure 4—Relative Importance Factor

Relative Importance Factor

Which of these two factors plays a greater role in influencing our behavioral intention is subject to a number or factors. Attitude toward behavior plays a more important role when the decision maker has a greater amount of information, and the subjective norm becomes more important when there is little information. Another factor to consider is the personality of the decision maker. The relative position of a person within the organizational structure is also a factor. Higher positions are less likely to be influenced by subjective norms than by attitudes toward behavior.

Changing Attitude (Behavior)

To structurally change behavior, we have to change our intention to perform that behavior. To change our intention to perform that behavior, we must either change our attitude or our subjective norm regarding that behavior. Subjective norm is defined as an individual's perception of whether people important to that individual think the behavior should be performed. The contribution of the opinion of any given referent is weighted by the motivation that an individual has to comply with the wishes of that referent. Or, maybe both of them need to change. To accomplish that, we have to change the underlying belief(s) regarding that behavior. This highlights the complexity of the endeavor, as well as the challenges faced.

Unlike personality, attitudes can be changed. Many theories exist as to why we change our attitudes. One way is through our experiences. If we become aware of information from a reliable and trusted source and that new information is in conflict with our understanding or position, this creates conflict and forces us to try to achieve congruity (see the principle of consistency). This will ultimately cause us to change our attitude about the subject. Another way to change a person's attitude is to change its utility to that person. If an attitude is perceived as having no benefit, at best, or creating some concern, at worst, the person will change it.

Another way to change attitude is through persuasion. If people can be persuaded that an attitude is detrimental to them, they will change it. There are certain factors that come into play in order to foster this.

  • Research indicates that intelligent people are not likely to be persuaded by "one-sided" arguments.
  • The credibility of a perceived message has been found to be a key variable here; if one trusts and respects the source, he or she is are more likely to accept and act on information provided by that source.
  • The nature of the message plays a role in persuasion. Sometimes presenting both sides of a story is useful to help change attitudes. Sometimes the number of arguments presented in a persuasive message will influence attitude change.

We have to be careful about the message. Overly strong messages are likely to produce the opposite effect than was intended. People will not believe us and therefore not change their attitudes. You have to remember not only to know the attitudes of your audience but also their latitudes of acceptance and rejection. If your message falls outside those boundaries, you are apt to get the "boomerang effect" on your message. In those cases, going for a moderate change may be prudent.

In persuasion, as in social influence and attitude change, emotion is a common affective factor. Emotions work in conjunction with the cognitive process. This is how we think about situations, consider information, or evaluate issues. Any discrete emotion can be used in a persuasive appeal. It is important to note that there is an optimal emotion level in motivating attitude change. Too little emotion may not facilitate change, and too much may paralyze the person and prevent attitude change.

Emotions perceived as negative or containing threats are often studied more than perceived positive emotions, such as humor. Though the inner workings of humor are not agreed upon, humor appeals may work by creating incongruities in the mind. Recent research has looked at the impact of humor on the processing of political messages. While evidence is inconclusive, there appears to be potential for targeted attitude change in this area.


Organizations generally have an expectation that the workforce will perform the work in a safe manner. They have policies and procedures that speak to this in some form or another, but, because many of them treat safety as being distinct and separate from operations, they create unforeseen system-driven risks and barriers to optimal performance. This structural misalignment between operations and safety, as well as management's actions and expectations, creates a work environment (climate) that influences workers' perceptions and fosters the attitudes they form, resulting in unexpected and undesirable behaviors. 

In this case, neither an organization's management, operation's staff, nor safety personnel have a clear understanding of the underlying complex problem and how it drives the undesirable safety outcomes they get. They also have no appreciation for the scope, difficulty, and challenges of the undertaking required to structurally change the resulting safety outcomes. They invariably work on the symptoms rather than the true drivers of their perceived problem. As a result, they end up with the undesirable outcomes (accidents and losses) they have designed their organizational and operational systems to give them.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.