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Who's the Safest Bet for the Job?

Before hiring a new worker, companies often do a background check. They sometimes also try to assess a candidate’s honesty or propensity for the job through standard tests. They do not, however, test to see whether the candidate is accident prone.

Unfortunately, it’s no joke. There are certain types of people who are simply more likely to be involved in on-the-job accidents than others, according to studies conducted by a host of researchers, including the author.

It is possible to screen job applicants based on underlying personality traits that are associated with accidents, injury frequency, and associated loss of work time. What this means is that companies can systematically hire people who are safer and spend less time off work, thus reducing accidents and associated lost time, while improving the bottom line.

Research. There has been a fair amount of research on what has been referred to as “accident proneness.” A number of human traits have been hypothesized to underlie accident proneness, with some fairly strong empirical support for the proposed relationships. These traits—or the absence thereof—tend to correlate with problems in the workplace.

Conscientiousness. One personality trait, conscientiousness, is probably the most studied attribute when it comes to safety behavior and accidents. Conscientiousness is a broad personality trait that is commonly described as an individual’s degree of organization, persistence, and motivation in goal-directed behavior.

People high in this trait tend to be fastidious and dependable, demonstrating a careful approach to doing things. They are driven to achieve. You know these people; they are the ones that focus on work, always arrive on time, and can be counted on to do the job right.

Conscientiousness has been consistently shown to be positively related to beneficial outcomes in most jobs, and safe work behavior is no exception. Not surprisingly, the absence of conscientiousness causes the opposite—unsafe behavior.

In a study published in the Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community in 2001, Dr. Douglas Cellar of DePaul University and his colleagues found that conscientiousness was significantly negatively correlated with total number of at-fault and not-at-fault accidents. Individuals who are low in this trait tend to ignore safety rules and regulations, so it makes sense that these people are involved in more on-the-job accidents and injuries.

Thrill-seekers. The related traits of impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and risk-taking have also been found to be linked to increased accidents. This probably comes as no surprise, as people who are high in these traits act without much thought, make high-risk decisions, actively search for thrilling things to do to occupy their time, and repress the anticipation of negative consequences.

These are the people who like to see how fast the forklift will go. The only real surprise is that these people do not get into more accidents.

Extroverts. Another trait that has been implicated in the occurrence of accidents is extroversion. Individuals high in this trait tend to be sociable and outgoing, and prefer to be around and work with others.

“Personality Characteristics of the Accident Involved Employee,” a review by C.P. Hansen in 1988 of the personality and accident literature published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, shows that extreme extroversion is associated with a greater likelihood of accidents. That’s because extremely extroverted people tend to be more easily distracted and have shorter attention spans.

Extroverted people are the life of the party, tend to enjoy crowds, and are very social beings. They are also described as being “lower on the level of vigilance,” which may leave them less prepared to deal with situational demands or anticipate events that can cause or lead to accidents and injuries.

Optimists and pessimists. A 1997 study by Roderick Iverson and Peter Erwin, “Predicting Occupational Injury: The Role of Affectivity,” published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, investigated the role of mood in safety behavior. The authors studied the mood dimensions of Positive Affect (PA) and Negative Affect (NA). Individuals with high PA perceive situations in a positive and enthusiastic way (the cup is half-full), while those high in NA have a generally negative view of the world (the cup is half-empty).

High PA people display relatively high levels of vigor and alertness, while high NA people have lower energy and are more likely to suffer attention lapses. The Iverson/Erwin study found that NA predicted occupational injury one year after the mood assessment was administered, while PA accurately predicted a lack of on-the-job injuries.

Other indicators. One study that focused both on injury frequency and duration is “Correlates of Work Injury Frequency and Duration Among Firefighters,” published in 2001 in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology by Hui Liao, Richard D. Arvey, and Richard J. Butler of the University of Minnesota, and Steven M. Nutting of the City of Minneapolis human resource department. This study examined personality correlates of workplace injuries suffered by 171 firefighters over a 12-year period. The firefighters were administered a personality test as part of the mandatory screening process for job applicants in the city where the study took place. The researchers found that three personality types tended to correlate to injury frequency: hypochondriacs, psychopathic deviates, and introverts.

Hypochondriacs. Individuals scoring high on the hypochondriasis scale tend to worry excessively about their health, to the point that it dominates their lives and seriously restricts their activities, potentially resulting in increased risk of injury.

Deviates. High scorers on the psychopathic-deviate scale tend to take action without considering consequences, demonstrate poor judgment, and take risks. They are also more likely to ignore safety rules and regulations, resulting in higher accident rates.

With regard to injury duration, this study found that the psychopathic-deviate scale also predicted the duration of the firefighters’ injuries. The authors theorized that these individuals, due to their tendency to ignore rules, may have sustained more serious injuries that resulted in more lost time. In addition, these people may also ignore return-to-work rules and abuse leave policies, resulting in extended injury-time-off periods.

Introverts. Interestingly, the study found that firefighters high in social introversion tended to have more on-the-job injuries. Although this might at first seem contrary to other research findings in which extroversion was linked to accidents, it merely shows that the extremes at either end of the sociability scale can cause problems.

The authors explained that individuals who are less likely to engage in interpersonal interactions are more insecure and uncomfortable when working with others, possibly causing them to hesitate before calling for assistance. Since firefighting requires high levels of teamwork and cooperation, some sociability would be even more important in this setting.

Malingering. From a dollar-savings perspective, getting injured employees back on the job quickly can be every bit as important as preventing injuries in the first place. According to a recent report by Mercer Risk, Finance, and Insurance Consulting, while lost-time claims make up only 26 percent of all national workers’ compensation claims, they account for 90 to 95 percent of all benefits paid. Organizations can realize a sizable cost savings by hiring employees who are both less likely to have accidents and more likely to return to work faster after experiencing an injury.

Unicru, Inc. (the author’s company), conducted a large study in 2004 examining employee safety from the dual perspective of safe job behavior and malingering after an injury. The purpose of the study was to examine the relationships between scores on a safety-assessment test and workers’ compensation claims data. A total of 712 hourly employees from a medium-sized grocery industry company provided the data for the analysis.

The assessment used a dozen personality-trait scales to predict the two outcomes (for more on these traits, see box). Among traits assessed with regard to safe behavior were carelessness, sensation-seeking, conscientiousness, and dependability. Those used to measure post-injury malingering included detachment, learned helplessness, entitlement, and manipulation.

Results indicated that individuals who scored in the top half on the safety assessment had an average workers’ compensation claim $413 less than individuals who scored in the bottom half on the assessment ($964 versus $1,377). In addition, individuals in the top half took an average of 1.5 fewer days off than those in the bottom half (3.2 days versus 4.7 days).

The data were also analyzed for a subsample of employees who had been on the job for less than one year. For new hires, the differences between the top-scoring group and the bottom-scoring group were even more pronounced. Workers scoring in the top half on the assessment had filed claims worth 50 percent less than the average claim for the entire pool of employees, and the days off for that group was 35 percent below the average for the worker population as a whole.

These results clearly demonstrate the potential financial significance of identifying individuals whose personality traits may correlate to behaviors that lead to unsafe work practices and excessive time off work following injuries. Screening out these individuals during the employee-selection process can have a clear and measurable impact on the safety performance of an organization’s work force as well as its bottom line. For organizations that hire thousands of people per year, the impact could be dramatic.

Implementation. Several companies have taken this research out of the technical journals and placed it into the hands of hiring managers, with scientifically designed prescreening safety- assessment questionnaires that can be easily administered through technology to millions of job applicants.

Unicru, for example, offers a safety-performance assessment that prospective employees can take in a hiring kiosk inside a store, or through a corporate Web site. These assessments range from 50 or so statements to much longer tests with more than 120 statements.

Each statement seeks to elicit information on one of the dozen traits considered reliable estimators of safe work behaviors. For example, one statement might read: “Someone else usually causes your problems.” Another might say: “You bounce back right away from disappointments.”

Candidates are given the opportunity to express varying degrees of agreement or disagreement with the statement. These range from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

Assessments can be scored instantly; Unicru’s assessment provides a red, yellow, or green light, signifying the score to a hiring manager in a simple way. These scores are based on validation data that the company has accumulated from more than 100,000 people. These data have been correlated with workers’ compensation claims information from clients.

Legal issues. This type of assessment provides practical and validated information to employers without exposing them to legal challenges that could arise from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits questions about a job applicant’s history on topics such as workers’ compensation claims or missed work because of illness. The safety-performance assessments do not ask these types of questions.

One final note on the hidden benefit of hiring “safer” employees deserves consideration: Workplace accidents and unsafe work behaviors tend to be associated with other deviant or counterproductive behaviors. For example, employees who are unlikely to follow safety rules are also less likely to arrive at work on time. They also tend to have more absences and frequently have poorer levels of productivity and quality. In a sense, accidents can be seen as the visible “tip of the iceberg” and are often indicative of a more general pattern of counterproductive work behavior.

By using screening tools to reduce the number of unsafe, malingering employees, companies can reduce the cost of accidents while also increasing revenue through employing a more fully engaged, compliant, and effective work force.

Douglas E. Haaland, Ph.D., is senior assessment scientist at Unicru, Inc., in Beaverton, Oregon.