Expert Commentary

The Role of Beliefs in Safety

There are many organizations that still believe that accidents are the result of workers flagrantly ignoring good work practices, failing to use common sense, and/or neglecting to follow company policies and procedures.


Construction Safety
April 2016

Many organizations' worksite supervision believes that workers are primarily responsible for their own safety and should engage in safe work practices for their own good, as it is the workers who will get injured and suffer if they don't. They generally articulate that workers should use good judgment and be constantly vigilant when working in hazardous environments. These same supervisors also believe that their primary goal is to meet production objectives. These and a few other commonly held beliefs tend to create impediments to effective accident and injury prevention.

Belief in Risk and Hazards

People may take risks due to necessity, convenience, carelessness, or ignorance. Workers contribute to this problem by primarily relying on experience and self-confidence when performing the work. Preventive measures may not always be respected or diligently utilized for personal reasons, such as a "macho" view of one's abilities or what coworkers may think of one's use of personal protective equipment (the "herd" mentality). They may not perceive the risk or fail to assess the exposure, or they may underestimate the risk due to the fact that they have worked under similar circumstances before without experiencing an adverse effect or getting injured.

Workers may deem the safety measures as a burden and an impediment to their ability to achieve production goals. They may understand the risk but assume that they are capable of dealing with it in order to get the job done. They may feel that to stay employed, they must meet production goals in spite of the risk, thereby causing them to consciously and willingly engage in at-risk behavior.

For a multitude of reasons, management, supervisors, and workers in construction organizations often have an unrealistic or fatalistic view toward hazards ("it is the nature of the industry"), the risk of getting injured ("if one is meant to get injured, then one will, and there is not much that can be done about it"), exposure ("it will only take a minute, and I can deal with it"), and accidents in general ("it won't happen to me—I'm experienced"). Beliefs such as these affect the way management and the workforce approaches safety and performance on the job.

Traditionally, accident prevention interventions have been focused on training the individual workers in safety standards so as to give them the information and knowledge necessary to perform their work safely. Worksites are inspected to ensure engineering controls are in place, as well as to identify and stop workers from violating safety rules. Some safety practitioners believe that coaching or reasoning with workers will get them to work safely. These interventions work with varying degrees of success, but they never eliminate risk, nor do they significantly reduce them. And they really don't do much to diminish the associated accidents in modern construction production systems.

Research has shown that people's behavior is driven by their underlying belief systems, which have a profound effect on hazard management, exposure assessment, and accident prevention. These beliefs are shaped by the interplay of the operating culture, management's actions and expectations, and the resulting workplace climate. This underlying view and resulting approach to work may not be fully appreciated, well understood, or effectively utilized by individuals involved in the improvement of production systems performance, as well as those involved with managing worker safety.

There are many reasons for this. Production goal achievement is a key driver of performance, with less attention paid to other associated targets, goals, and/or outcomes. A puissant focus on increased production usually leads to deviation from accepted safe work practices or the enforcement of them, resulting in "standards creep." People responsible for safe performance do not have tools other than the ones traditionally available in the industry, so to deal with the emerging problems, they utilize one or two of the existing tools (interventions), which they apply more rigorously. As the famous saying goes, using the same methods but expecting different results is insanity!

Belief in Risk Management

Several research studies have identified that workers (as well as management) have different perspectives on risk and the potential negative resulting outcomes from exposure to them. They also have beliefs about accident causations and preventive measures. This becomes more important in industries such as construction where there is more variability and uncertainty than others. This situation results from unique projects in diverse locations, a mobile workforce, diverse project constraints, different and multiple subcontractors and their supervision, and different cultures and values among all involved, to name a few. In spite of all these conditions, there are some construction firms that manage their projects in such a manner that their results are far superior to that of the industry at large.

Many organizations devise operating systems that encompass values and standards specific to their core beliefs about work, people, and performance. This is also true of people who actually perform the work as well. So the project work system and the work practice is influenced by the underlying beliefs of the people involved, thereby affecting the perception of risk, beliefs about accident causation, and the overall risk management framework. This thinking establishes the basis for whether operating risks are acceptable, manageable, or deemed unavoidable.

This colors management's outlook on risk in general and influences the measures taken by them to overcome the potential harmful effects of the risks encountered at the worksite. It also influences the workers' evaluation of their exposure to risk and their willingness to use protective systems provided, follow safety procedures, or act on safety messages. Understanding the underlying drivers opens up a more systematic and targeted avenue to holistically address worksite risks and, therefore, more effectively reduce or eliminate accidents.

In this competitive economy, many organizations are highly concerned with identifying, evaluating, and managing occupational and environmental risks. The beliefs people have influence their perceptions of risks, and these perceptions affect their behavior with respect to performance and safety. Risks are generally perceived in relation to whether they are judged to be tolerable or intolerable, manageable or unmanageable, or beneficial or harmful. Broadly speaking, safety may be seen as the level of risk that is judged acceptable in that particular work environment.

Studies on this subject have shown that risk perception is a complex phenomenon that can be determined by social, psychological, physical, political, and/or cultural factors. It is contingent on a great number of factors linked either to the risk itself, to characteristics of the perceiver and his or her personal history, or to the culture and values of the society or organization. A subjective evaluation of risk can be influenced by beliefs about the risk. There are many possible factors at play, such as its familiarity, its utility, the perceived probability of the occurrence of an adverse outcome, and its possible severity. Another important factor is whether the risk is voluntarily taken on or somehow imposed either naturally, technologically, operationally, or otherwise.

Belief in Accident Causation

Another point to consider is that risk perception is affected by beliefs associated with individual variables (e.g., age, sex, experience, personality, motivation, need for work, etc.), such as social (e.g., lifestyle, family, education, economic status, etc.), cognitive (e.g., understanding, reasoning, comprehension, insight, intelligence, etc.), circumstantial (e.g., perceived capability of implemented controls, personal ability to deal with a situation, degree of perceived exposure, etc.), or organizational factors (e.g., culture, climate, management's attitude, group norms, etc.).

In construction, all people involved—from the workers to supervisors; from managers to company executives—have some understanding of risk and its existence on worksites. But each has a different opinion as to how this results in accidents and injuries and how to deal with this issue. This thinking (belief) fundamentally impacts the way safety is addressed and the effectiveness of preventive measures. To some degree, this varies in organizations (e.g., construction) based on sophistication and size, the owners they work for, the partners they utilize, or the industry sector. Workers who need the work will generally accept a higher level of risk, work in environments that are more hazardous, and use tools that may be poorly maintained or inappropriate for the task. Risk may be taken for convenience, out of carelessness, or out of ignorance, such as the lack of understanding that systems (policies, practices, and procedures) may create situations that allow risk to enter into the work process or the belief that only worker's acts are the primary source of risk in the work environment.

On the worker's part, risk taking may be associated with confidence in their ability to deal with the risks involved due to past experience, confidence in their skills, underestimating the level of the risk, or even underestimating the level of exposure, as well as the possible fatalistic belief toward risk and accidents. The reasons given for accidents by workers provide a window into their attitudes and beliefs about safety, accident causation, or the confidence they have in their ability to deal with hazardous work situations.

Beliefs about accident causation establish the basis for the design of preventive measures, their implementation, and procedures of how to deal with the risk when they are encountered. Accident attribution usually depends on who is explaining the accident. The involved party (worker) usually attributes it to operational factors. This may cover such things as time pressures, the availability of proper tools or equipment and their condition, and a lack of protective measures or equipment. They may also attribute it the management factors, which may cover such things as little or no concern for safety, a lack of proper planning, or a focus on productivity, to name a few. Or they may simply attribute the accident to bad luck.

The people explaining the accident who are not involved in it (supervisors, managers, experts, etc.) attribute it to rather different (internal) causes. This generally focuses on some failing on the worker's part. They may mention such things as inattention, inexperience, lack of focus, ignorance, not using common sense, failure to follow good work practices, or even downright stupidity on the worker's part. This is one example of looking at the same accident but attributing it to different causes, stemming from different beliefs about accident causation.

Another reason for the attribution of the accident (the workers pointing to management while management is pointing to the workers) may be driven by the underlying social, economic, or legal implications. These biases may be motivated or driven by self-protection, one's belief system, one's position in the organization, or possible involvement in causation, to name a few. This posture and ultimate goal is defensive in nature. The positions of those involved will become more entrenched and will be greatly affected by the seriousness of the accident and the ultimate potential outcome of the situation.

Conclusion

Beliefs involving the impact of risk on the worker's safety and the perceived benefit of risk taking should be a factor that is assessed when considering or evaluating the motivation underlying the resulting behavior. Depending on the situation, beliefs can positively or negatively affect safety and its management. Beliefs about control are important to accident analysis and the explanations of causation. By gaining insight into such beliefs and taking those into account, accidents may be analyzed realistically, and robust preventive measure can be devised and implemented.

The importance that beliefs play in workplace safety and its management has been identified in numerous research studies. Researchers have also verified that subjective judgment by people is a major component in any risk assessment. If such judgment is faulty, the risk management process and efforts will, in all likelihood, be misdirected and garner inferior or no beneficial results. It has been asserted that in reality, much of accident preventive measures are driven by causal inferences rather than the actual drivers of such events.


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.

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