Personality traits and safety: how hiring the right people saves lives

Personality traits and safety: how hiring the right people saves lives

What is the relationship between personality traits and safety behavior in the workplace? Let’s have an overview of relevant scientific literature findings.

Workplace safety hazards

Every now and then people get injured or even die due to workplace accidents. This may happen despite the existence of safety regulations and technological safeguards. Such accidents may happen when people use heavy machinery, work in dangerous environments (e.g. mines, oil refineries, on top of buildings, etc.), or in transport and travel. Sometimes equipment may be faulty. But more often than not, humans are involved in the chain of events that allowed an accident to happen. Having procedures and regulations is never enough. More so when people don’t follow them.

Personality traits and safety in the workplace

To what extent some personality traits predispose individuals to comply with safety regulations? In research, one way of addressing this question is by identifying risk-takers and non-risk-takers in the population, administer these groups with personality tests, and run statistical procedures to determine personality differences between them.

Using a relatively early personality model, Fine (1963) found a link between introversion–extroversion and vehicle driving behavior and suggested that dangerous driving coincided with extroversion. In a more recent study, Sucha & Černochová (2016) using the NEO Personality Inventory, reported personality differences between drivers with a suspended license and a control group of “normal” drivers. Their study suggested that agreeable and conscientious people tend to comply with safety regulations.

In these types of studies, researchers tend to compare an exhaustive list of personality traits in order to find differences without always having a prior hypothesis. Conclusions are rather determined by statistical comparisons. It is not important here to summarize every statistical difference in personality traits among risk-takers and non-risk-takers, the point is that the literature suggests that personality plays a role in complying with safety regulations.

Nonetheless, for those interested, Ulleberg & Rundmo (2003) have identified commonly reoccurring personality traits coinciding with unsafe driving behavior. These are sensation-seeking, aggression, and social deviance (Hilakivi et al., 1989; Jonah, 1997; West and Hall, 1997), which are well-known personality traits and can be measured with various instruments.

The role of cognitive factors in safety behavior

When reading such studies, one has to remember that accidents may sometimes be attributed to other than human factors such as infrastructure O’Connell et. al. (2013). In addition, depending on the criteria used, the same event may be attributed either to human error or other factors. Even if an accident is attributed to a human factor, in some cases, factors other than personality may explain the outcome. Intuitively, cognitive factors such as planning or organization, to name a few, may play a role. At this point, we can consider the model of Tao et al., (2023). In their model, they reported that personality traits have indirect effects on safety outcomes by partly affecting the following parameters:

  1. attitudes towards safety
  2. executive functions

By executive functions, they meant cognitive factors relating to learning strategies, planning, and organization. What their statistical results indicate, is that even if an unsafe behavior may be attributed to action planning, learning, or an action organization error, you may find a personality trait behind this inadequacy. In addition, even when we discuss about safety attitudes, personality factors are linked and interconnected with attitudes.

In addition, in their statistically significant model, human errors and human violations of safety procedures were affected by attitudes and executive functions, however, both attitudes and executive functions were affected by personality traits.

Do knowledge and skills guarantee safety in the workplace?

The conclusion we draw on this issue is that skills and knowledge of safety procedures are not enough to ensure health and safety regulation compliance. It also has to do with what someone will decide to do and that depends on personality.

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Dimitrios is a quantitative methodologist in psychology. His interests include answering questions about the human psyche, using data, statistics and mathematics.