Safety first, then the job
Vetting the attitudes of potential employees can do a lot to prevent workplace accidents, reports Denise Cullen
PSYCHOLOGICAL testing of potential employees to identify risk takers, stress addicts, closet thugs and other problematic personalities is emerging as the latest weapon in the war against workplace accidents. One person dies almost every day as a result of workplace injury, according to figures from the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (ASCC).
When you add to that the 16 or so serious workplaces injuries which occur every hour, around the clock, council chairman Bill Scales claims it’s clear the number of compensation claims, and the human toll they represent, is staggering. ‘‘ Workplace accidents not only affect those involved but also have a significant and often tragic effect on workmates and family members,’’ he says.
Yet despite businesses spending billions each year on training, signage, machine servicing and countless other initiatives to improve occupational health and safety, around 90 per cent of workplace accidents are caused by human error.
Eighty per cent of incidents tend to be caused by the same 20 per cent of ‘‘ repeat offenders’’ who are the product of both genes and experience, says Steven Dahl, managing director of Onetest, a Brisbane-based provider of online HR solutions.
‘‘ We’ve found that high-risk people, even when placed in safe, low-risk environments, will keep having accidents. There are some people who are inherently more likely to take uncalculated risks (and with) a higher propensity than others to injure themselves at work.
‘‘ If (a company) didn’t bring those people into the workplace in the first place, then their occupational health and safety claims would decrease and their reputation would increase.’’
In an effort to identify unsafe people during the recruitment process — long before they have the opportunity to wreak havoc in their unsuspecting workplaces — Onetest spent 18 months developing and testing an online ‘‘ work safety assessment’’ tool which measures candidates safety attitudes.
The first Australian test of its type, it takes seven to 10 minutes and considers five key attributes of safety: safety control (or personal responsibility towards maintaining a safe environment), risk aversion, stress management, drug aversion and attitudes towards violence.
The test includes certain questions to ensure consistency, and thwart the efforts of test-takers who seek to beat the system. It is also normed to local standards — an important point, because attitudes to risk are also partly cultural.
For instance, Dahl claims Australian workers undertaking similar tests in North America would most likely ‘‘ bomb out’’ due to the prevalence of more conservative, risk-averse attitudes there.
One company which has adopted the Onetest assessment as part of its standard recruitment strategy is labour hire firm Vedior Asia Pacific, formerly Select Australasia, which draws staff across a wide range of locations and industries.
Candidates are assessed at the registration phase, says Greg Saunders, Vedior’s national manager of health safety and injury management. Results are available immediately, with those scoring in the bottom 20th percentile screened out and not forwarded to any of the company’s clients.
‘‘ You can do a lot to create a safe environment for people, but you can’t control what they do in the workplace,’’ says Saunders. ‘‘ There’s a percentage of people out there who do silly things, take risks and have poor attitudes towards their own safety and that of others.’’
Some of the accidents he’s come across during his career include a worker crashing a forklift into a wall during a ‘‘ joy ride’’, a labourer trying to catch a dropped angle grinder while the blade was still spinning and many, many instances where people attempted to lift more than they were capable of.
Yet while the manufacturing and construction industries account for a disproportionate amount of accidents each year, 19.7 per cent and 10.3 per cent of all fatalities respectively, according to ASCC figures, white collar workers have their own pattern of hazards and risks.
For example, they might not see so many amputations, but there are significant numbers of claimants who have experienced psychologi- cal problems arising out of issues relating to stress, bullying and harassment.
And though there are few studies into white collar drug use, it’s widely accepted that functional addicts can exist anywhere.
Since adopting the assessment, Vedior has reported a 71 per cent reduction in workcover claim costs and a decrease in lost time due to injuries of up to 40 per cent — positive news from a corporate perspective.
But what about the one in five (or sometimes more) people whose chances of work are compromised when they flunk a work safety assessment due to the inherent personality type encoded in their genes?
There is ample evidence to suggest we still desperately needs people with a propensity for risk-taking — despite society’s equally urgent demands for seat belts, safety helmets and guard rails. Precisely because they don’t play it safe, these people are our explorers, adventurers, creators, dreamers, dynamos, discoverers, innovators and entrepreneurs.
Writing in Psychology Today , Marvin Zuckerman, a US psychologist who devised a personality-assessment tool known as the Sensation-Seeking Scale (SSS), notes that while risk-taking is often painted as a negative in our litigious corporate environment, it can also function as a positive force.
‘‘ It is important to identify such people because they create significant public health problems, for others as well as themselves,’’ he says. ‘‘ But for all the danger they put themselves in, they personify — perhaps magnify is more precise — a human trait that is very much responsible for our survival as a species.’’
As Sydney-based clinical and organisational psychologist Grant Brecht explains, the imperative is not so much about screening people out and tossing them on the scrap heap, as ensuring a good ‘‘ fit’’ between a particular person and the role he or she is required to perform.
Putting a risk-taking personality into a position where they have to fly aircraft or operate machinery could be disastrous — just as it would be, but in a different way, if they were on a microchip assembly line where they had to attend to every small detail. The likelihood, he says, is that ‘‘ they will go bananas’’.
Brecht adds that psychological screening tests are really only useful as ‘‘ road signs’’, or pointers to particular problematic behaviours that can be modified with training and other forms of intervention.
Dahl says this sort of outcome is even more likely in today’s full employment market, when employers don’t have the luxury of screening out their weakest links. Rather, they can use their knowledge of a particular employee’s inherent ‘‘ riskiness’’ to minimise or remove the high risk elements of their job, or to provide them with additional training where necessary — for instance, in stress management or anger management techniques.
He says that in a world where mistakes can ‘‘ cost you your life’’, employees support any initiatives which will help keep them safe.
‘‘ People don’t like being screened, but they benefit by going into a workplace where they won’t be killed or injured by their colleagues,’’ he says. ‘‘ And people don’t want to work for companies that have a poor reputation for safety.’’
Precautions: Greg Saunders believes a lot can be done to create a safe workplace