Tag Archives: Safety

Re-thinking the Role of Perceptual Acuity – A Review and Commentary on Veazie, Landen, Bender, & Amandus (1994)

This article is a review of the epidemiological literature on occupational injuries spanning 1970 to 1992. While there are brief sections on worker populations (i.e., industries represented in the studies they reviewed), and outcomes (i.e., injuries, ranging from minor to severe), the most interesting and potentially insightful section is on risk factors. The remainder of the article focuses on where research efforts should be directed, such as studying specific risk factors, as well as a thorough consideration of methodological issues related to this line of inquiry.

The worker populations found within the studies Veazie and colleagues reviewed were predominantely from industries that are known to be hazardous or simply accessibile to researchers but not particularly hazardous. Consider manufacturing with regards to the latter.  Manufacturing is an industry commonly examined in research because of the relative practicality of conducting research in this industry and not because of any particular unique hazardous conditions. As such, our understanding of occupational injuries, be it outcomes or risk factors, is potentially industry biased when aggregated.

Meanwhile, Veazie and colleagues contrast the practical motivations with motivations driven by actual hazards, such as the focus on transportation and mining. Both of these industries are recognized as relatively high-risk industries. However, as hinted at above, whether an industry is hazardous does not mean it is more likely to be the target of researchers, as many extremely hazardous industries are underrepresented (at least when this paper was published) as they are less accessible, such as agriculture, logging, construction, and fishing. Veazie and colleagues suggest this is largely due to the “transient and independent nature of their workers” (p. 205). Fair enough.

The next notable section is on the outcomes found in the literature they reviewed. The authors note that most non-injury mishaps are excluded and that most studies focus on accidents. Alas, this causes tremendous grief to other safety researchers as the recording and measurement of accidents does not allow us to separate accidents that result in injuries and those that do not. This inability to isolate injuries from accidents is still a problem for those of us joining the field of occupational safety and searching for empirical precision. Another notable shortcoming of the literature on outcomes that Veazie and colleagues pointed out, and which caused my head to nod incessantly in agreement, was that it has been rare for researchers to isolate severity in their measures of accidents and injuries – an idea that still requires empirical attention.

The most insightful section in this paper is on risk factors. Veazie and colleagues classify three categories of risk factors: human, job content, and environment. Human risk factors include things such as demographics, experience, stress reactions, knowledge, and attitudes (p. 206), job content includes factors such as work design and scheduling, while environmental factors include social and organizational features such as physical stressors and hazards.

Veazie and colleagues outline risk factors found in 32 studies that meet their standard of quality to infer an existing relationship. While these specific factors can be found outlined in the three tables on page 207 onwards, the most insightful comment about human risk factors, and I think potentially overlooked theme for all risk factors, is that these factors in some way influence perceptual acuity. While the authors do not expand on what they mean by this, I think the summary of factors found in one study they mention is worth expanding upon.

Veazie and colleagues use the term perceptual acuity when discussing one study where it was found that noise exposure, hearing loss, and alcohol use (among others) were related to injury in shipyard workers (Moll van Charante & Mulder, 1990). They summarized these and the other factors as those which influence perceptual acuity and left it at that. However, I think this idea could be expanded to explain the connection between not only majority of the human factors, but also the job content and environmental factors.  It can be inferred that human factors infringe upon or dampen perceptual acuity. In turn, this leaves individuals vulnerable to hazards that, under better conditions, they would be fully attentive towards and better able to avoid.

The idea that under better conditions individuals would be better prepared for and able to prevent injuries is only part of the story. Other human factors, such as experience, tell us something else.  For one, less experience is typically related to a higher likelihood of injury at work. This lack of experience plays a role on what people perceive to be hazards in their work place, making them more vulnerable to injury. Perceptual acuity is still an accurate mechanism, but instead of it being hampered attention or focus, it is the nature of the perception. As such, a lack of experience fully well influences perceptual acuity, but not in such a way that under better conditions, fully attentive individuals would be prepared for and able to prevent injuries. Instead, individuals who lack experience would still overlook hazards or engage in work activities that carry job specific risks. How can someone prevent an injury if they are not aware of the hazards or risks or the circumstances that increase the likelihood of increasing these very hazards or risks.

The next sections do not at all discuss the effects that job content nor environmental factors have on perceptual acuity. But again, I argue that these can be roughly described as factors that either infringe upon or shape motivations to allocate attention towards hazards in the workplace. In some sense, this may just me forcibly imposing a way of connecting the factors described in these sections. I argue that job content, represented by aspects of job design and layout (e.g., job difficulty, workload, shift work, and so forth), is largely that which can infringe upon or limit perceptual acuity. Meanwhile I would place environmental factors as those which direct or explain how perceptual acuity is devised and divided, such as physical environmental obstacles, structural incentives, and dealing with other human beings.

While I may be over-simplifying things by stretching the idea of perceptual acuity as something that connects the categories provided by Veazie and colleagues, I found it to be an insightful and fun exercise. Reading through much of the literature on workplace safety has left me thinking there is a lot more room for theoretical improvement. As such, part of my approach in familiarizing myself with the literature has been to take that which we know in different directions – even if I know the odds suggest it will be a dead end.

References

Moll van Charante, A. W., & Mulder, p. G. (1990). Perceptual acuity and the risk of industrial accidents. American Journal of Epidemiology131(4), 652-663.

Veazie, M. A., Landen, D. D., Bender, T. R., & Amandus, H. E. (1994). Epidemiologic research on the etiology of injuries at work. Annual Review of Public Health15(1), 203-221.

The Past, Present, and Future of Workplace Safety Research – A Review of Beus, McCord, & Zohar (2016)

Beus and colleagues (2016) introduce the integrative safety model to provide a much needed comprehensive and coherent narrative behind research on workplace safety.  This includes thinking which has been supported by research and that which is currently attracting the attention of researchers. The integrative safety model (see figure below) is not an attempt at providing an overarching theory but is simply a way of organizing the most current approaches to workplace safety. The conceptual frame combines the three most dominant theories in workplace safety literature: job performance theory (Campbell, McCloy, Oppler, & Sager, 1993), job demands-resources theory (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007), and organizational climate theory (Zohar, 1980).

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An important advance in safety research was to start thinking about safety as a performance behaviour. To perform well, a person requires knowledge, motivation, and skill, and these three are largely determined by individual differences (such as personality) and contextual factors (such as leadership and training). The theory also suggests that history and experience will also shape knowledge, motivation, and skills. Together, job performance theory suggests that individual and contextual factors influence the safety triad of knowledge, motivation, and skill, which in turn influence safety behaviour and outcomes. Outcomes are then said to loop back and have a role in further shaping this safety triad of knowledge, motivation, and skill.

The literature largely, albeit in a rather scattered fashion, supports the proposed links between individual and contextual factors on knowledge, motivation, and skill. These in turn are related to safety-related behaviour and outcomes. However, no actual path or mediation models were reviewed, so it is unclear whether the actual indirect effects have been supported. In addition, the authors repeatedly mention safety skills as a feature with knowledge and motivation, but has this actually been developed? What does safety skill actually look like? The authors acknowledge that the idea of safety skill requires more work, but even the article they cite as an example to have used safety skill (Eklöf & Törner, 2002) really only measured knowledge despite calling their measure knowledge and skill. As such, safety skill is something worth thinking about and potentially developing as a construct, even just to show that it has no effect on safety behaviour.

Another advancement in the workplace safety literature was the adoption of the job demands-resources theory. This theory has proven to be extremely useful because it focuses on an array of job characteristics and contextual factors that either contribute to a person’s ability to do their job (i.e., resources) or contribute to the pressure people face do their job (i.e., demands).  In other words, contextual and job-related demands and resources influence personal resources, which in turn are related to safe and unsafe behaviour.

Again, the literature largely supports this theory. As research on the job demands-resources theory has been fairly substantial, there is a fuller picture of the relationship. Not only do demands and resources rooted in job characteristics and contextual factors indirectly impact safety behaviour through personal resources, they also have a direct relationship with safety behaviour. However, generalizability of the job demands-resources theory is also its weakness. There is very little consensus on how demands and resources interact with each other and what the most important types of demands and resources are to safety behaviour and outcomes. This necessary theoretical contribution will, when it occurs, have important implications for workplace safety research and will have a considerable contribution to practice.

Finally, the most prominent theory in workplace safety research is the application of organizational climate theory in the form of safety climate.  The broader theory suggests that an organization’s collective expectations of how people behave will shape individual- and group-level safety related behaviours.  These expectations typically represent the belief that certain behaviours will be reinforced or punished, and in turn motivate people to behave accordingly. Then, in typical topic specific fashion, the appropriate adjective of safety gets tacked onto climate and we have shared perceptions about the value of safety in the workplace.

The literature on safety climate has turned out to be one of the most productive approaches to explaining and predicting safety-related behaviour.  This includes both levels of safety climate: individual and collective perceptions of safety. However, climate is not the only contextual factor shaping expectations about safety and safety-related behaviour. Other factors include transformational leadership, safety norms, and organizational goal-setting and feedback. While the evidence for these features toward safety-related behaviour is strong, there is disagreement about the intermediate behaviour-outcome expectancy of individuals and the nature of the consequential motivation. The authors argue that safety motivation and behaviour-outcome expectancy produce different types of motivation, the former is a matter of valence (i.e., there is value attached to safety), and the latter is a matter of instrumentality (i.e., the connection between behaviour and outcome is a strategy to achieve or retrieve desired outcomes). Theoretically this makes sense, but empirically I can imagine this would be difficult to separate and is something that will need to be solved to contribute to this argument.

Combining the three theories together, we get the natural tail end of the conceptual model linking individual- and group-level safety-related behaviour to accidents. These accidents in turn have consequences for contextual factors such as policy surrounding workplace safety and perceptions of safety climate. Unlike the previous set of variables, there is no theoretical narrative given to weave these variables together. However, this is arguably unnecessary as it is only one step removed from the previous three theories and can be argued to be a natural consequence of the causal sequence for all three theories.

Nonetheless, the presence of a theoretical explanation for the link between safety-related behaviour and accidents may be warranted.  As much as it is no surprise that safety-related behaviour is related to injuries and accidents, the actual effect size is smaller than would be expected, both at the individual and group level. The authors suggest that part of the story is missing, and other factors outside employee safety-related behaviour play an important role in determining the likelihood of accidents. Therefore, the introduction of a broader narrative encompassing employee safety-related behaviour and accidents will be necessary to fully appreciate the predictors of workplace accidents.

Overall, I found the integrative safety model to be a useful narrative for thinking about workplace safety from a distance. Beus and colleagues provide a good overview of what management and occupational health research has uncovered about workplace safety, what researchers are thinking now, and some speculation as to where we should focus our efforts next. Ultimately, I found this paper to be a helpful exercise to also speculate as to what the future of workplace safety research will look like.

References:

Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti, E. (2007). The job demands-resources model: State of the art. Journal of Managerial Psychology22(3), 309-328.

Beus, J. M., McCord, M. A., & Zohar, D. (2016). Workplace safety: A review and research synthesis. Organizational Psychology Review6(4), 352-381.

Campbell, J. P., McCloy, R. A., Oppler, S. H., & Sager, C. E. (1993). A theory of performance. Personnel Selection in Organizations3570, 35-70.

Eklöf, M. & Törner, M. (2002). Perception and control of occupational injury risks in fishery–a pilot study. Work & Stress16(1), 58-69.

Zohar, D. (1980). Safety climate in industrial organizations: theoretical and applied implications. Journal of Applied Psychology65(1), 96-102.