Safety first, then the job

Vet­ting the at­ti­tudes of po­ten­tial em­ploy­ees can do a lot to pre­vent work­place ac­ci­dents, re­ports Denise Cullen

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Career One -

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.’’

Pic­ture: Kelly Barnes

Pre­cau­tions: Greg Saun­ders be­lieves a lot can be done to cre­ate a safe work­place

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