Predicting Safe Workplace Behavior

There’s never a good time to get clobbered while driving through an intersection. Unfortunately it happens far too often to ambulances and medical transportation vehicles. As managers in EMS, we prefer that our days be productive and free of accident investigations. Common sense and experience tell us that nearly all accidents are preventable. However, truly effecting change and creating a safer EMS work environment requires a focus on the attitudes and behaviors that lend themselves to accidents.

Sticking with the intersection accident theme, let’s think about the skills, abilities and behaviors that might help a driver change the outcome of an advancing accident. Research provides us with four information processing variables: visual and auditory attention, perception style, choice / reaction time and safe behavior (Arthur and Doverspike, 2001). The combination of the first three variables allows the driver to perceive the problem and then form an adequate response (Traffic Accidents; Causes and Outcomes, Bartley, 2008). The fourth indicator (behavior) guides the choice to circumvent a potentially dangerous situation. For example, a driver might avoid an accident by simply deciding to reduce speed prior to entering the intersection.

Removing high-risk behaviors from the equation will reduce the possibility of accidents. A behavior-based safety approach contends that both safe and at-risk behaviors can be altered through reward and punishment. The caveat, however, is that employees must first have the motivation and a safety-mindset to avoid risky behaviors. Values, motivation and personality traits define a person and determine whether they will choose to avoid risk. These traits remain relatively stable throughout life. According to researcher Paul T. Costa Jr., there is no evidence that our overall personalities change as we grow older. “What changes as you go through life are your roles and the issues that matter most to you”. Hence, it is nearly impossible to hire a person with high-risk behavior and change them. The best training programs in the industry are lost on individuals who are highly like to engage in high risk activity.

Fortunately, we can design programs to measure and predict which personality traits are a good fit for a particular job. This includes traits that lend themselves to a high propensity for safe behavior. To achieve this, we rely on the science of Industrial-Organizational (I-O) Psychology. I-O Psychologists are focused on the scientific study of employees, workplaces, and organizations. More importantly, their work provides empirical data to help support better hiring decisions and job performance by isolating and validating key behaviors that lead to success on the job.

I-O Psychologists initially direct their attention to relevant job-requirements through job analysis, which includes interviews and direct observation. For the purposes of this discussion, the focus is on key behaviors relative to an EMT job. Through job observation, we gain an understanding of the risks associated with the job. For example, we know that 79 percent of an EMT’s time is dedicated to driving. Or, on average, once during every eight hours of duty, an EMT will pick up a patient weighing at least 250 pounds (Avesta Physical Ability Study, Doverspike and Weber, 2012).

Next, the I-O Psychologists delve into the behaviors associated with job tasks and risks. Notably, they seek to understand the traits of incumbent EMTs who are most likely to achieve success by avoiding job-specific risks. From this over-simplified explanation of process, come the parameters of validation and the measurement of behaviors that allow us to predict job performance. In terms of predicting a safer EMS workplace, the focus centers on conscientiousness and compliance, predictors of work ethic and workplace rule compliance. Also, safety orientation, defined as the tendency to think and behave in ways that promote safety and prevent accidents from occurring (Avesta EMSI Validation Study, Whitaker, Whitaker and Weber 2007).

EMS organizations are routinely adding behavior-based screening and selection tools to their pre-hire process. The ultimate goal is to identify individuals who possess those behaviors most likely to fit the job. In addition to creating a safer work environment, this makes for a more legally defensible employee engagement process.

Training dollars are better spent on those employees that fit the job and possess an interest in safety. Effective recruitment and retention processes can effectively manage risks and control costs by screening out individuals who are most likely to exhibit unsafe behavior. Ultimately, who would you rather hire; the driver who habitually slows down prior to entering an intersection, or the person who shoots through the intersection in order to arrive on scene a few seconds earlier?

– Greg Lawton, President, Avesta