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The Thinking Cap


Selecting Safe Workers – Not As Easy As You Think

Article prepared: 5 August 2013

Have you ever thought safety on site wouldn’t be an issue if you could just avoid hiring those few ‘bad apples’? Can you use psychometric or selection assessments to hire safe workers?

There is a growing body of research examining the relationship between individual traits and incident involvement. The aim of this research is to determine whether some employees are simply “accident-prone” or more likely to take risks on the job and whether or not you can spot these people early in the recruitment process. While many will assure you that this is possible, empirical research suggests that there isn’t a ‘quick fix’.

You have safety signs around your workplace. Your employees are reminded that safety is a top priority and they go through a thorough induction process, and yet, you feel like the safety in your workplace could be improved. Or perhaps you’re sick of meeting with the same people to remind them of the organisation’s commitment to safety. Are there individuals who are just prone to being unsafe in the workplace? Is it to do with their personality?

Personality and safety behaviours

Personality is the relatively stable set of attitudes and behaviours that make up an individual’s character. The Big Five model of personality is the most common framework used to classify personality traits, so named because it groups all personality traits into five main dimensions. These dimensions are:

  • Openness to experience
    • A tendency to appreciate art and adventure and to be creative and curious.
  • Conscientiousness
    • A tendency to meet deadlines, be self-disciplined and goal-oriented.
  • Extroversion
    • A tendency to engage in the external world with energy and vitality.
  • Agreeableness
    • A tendency to be kind and cooperative with others.
  • Neuroticism (or emotionality)
    • A tendency to experience negative emotions such as anxiety, depression or anger.

In a large review of organisations, researchers found that individuals low in agreeableness (people who tend to be less concerned with others’ well-being) were more likely to be involved in occupational incidents. Similarly, those low in conscientiousness (people who tend to be laid-back and less goal-oriented) were also more likely to be involved in incidents in the workplace. There have not been consistent relationships between other personality traits and workplace accidents.

Products on the market

Does this research mean that you can select employees with the right personality for high-risk workplaces? The answer is not really.

There are a number of products on the market advertising that they can detect unsafe workers. Some use weak links between the research into personality and accident involvement to determine whether employees will be unsafe in the workplace. The problem with this approach is that the research into personality traits and incident involvement is not particularly conclusive. A lot of research involves non-occupational accidents, such as traffic accidents, that are likely to be influenced by different factors. Research is also yet to identify why these people are more likely to be involved in incidents. Other products ask employees to self-report their own safety behaviours. This approach also has its issues, such as employees lying or answering the way they think they are supposed to answer.

In addition, the organisational culture of your workplace will affect how an individual behaves, so this is an important aspect to consider. For example, a generally rule-following employee is unlikely to don a hard-hat if no-one else in the organisation is modelling that behaviour. There is a dynamic interplay between individual’s behaviour and organisational culture.

If you are considering using a safety selection product, it is important to determine whether these products are based on empirical evidence, otherwise you may just be wasting your money. Some questions to ask are:

  • Is the product reliable? Are people likely to get a similar result under consistent situations?
  • Is the product valid? Does it predict unsafe workers or incident involvement?
  • Has the product been validated in your industry? Different industries are likely to have different safety requirements so it is important to check whether it has been endorsed for use in your industry.
  • Do they offer a consultation to assess your specific safety behaviour requirements? Every organisation is different, so assessing your specific needs is vital.

How PSB Solutions can help organisations with creating safe workplaces

PSB Solutions can help you to navigate the difficult process of deciding whether psychometric assessment is right for you. At PSB Solutions, evidence-based practice is our creed. We provide our clients with strategies that are scientifically proven to deliver positive outcomes in safety performance. We offer a consultative approach to organisational safety that incorporates selection and induction processes as well as safety climate assessment and development.

By using a holistic approach to selection and induction processes, leadership behaviours, policy reviews, training, performance management, and monitoring of organisational health via our Workforce Climate Indicator and Blue Pulse Safety Climate surveys, we can make your organisation safer and more productive.

If you would like to know more about our safety assessment services, give us a call on (08) 9489 3900 or email us.

Reading list

Clarke, S. & Robertson, I.T. (2005) A meta-analytic review of the Big Five personality factors and accident involvement in occupational and non-occupational settings, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 78, 355-376.


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