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Seeing the future: How to predict safe behaviors

by Jen Wason


June is
National Safety Month. The National Safety Council urges us to increase our awareness of what we can do to help keep each other safe at work, on the road, and in our homes.

You can’t predict accidents, but you can predict behaviors.

“Certain traits can reveal a person as more likely to engage in safe behaviors, promote safety within an organization, and value safety,” says Shaker’s Ashlie Plants, PhD. An industrial-organizational psychologist and associate on Shaker’s Design-Build team, Plants has studied safety and safety culture, worked as an occupational safety compliance consultant, and published on safety motivation and other occupational health topics.

And these traits that predispose someone to value safety can be measured as part of a multimethod, pre-employment assessment and used to predict future safety on the job, Plants explains.

“You can’t know if an employee is going to be involved in a future accident, but you can include, as part of an overall assessment system, measures that assess traits that predict how likely someone is to engage in safe behaviors.”

What makes someone likely to engage in safe behaviors?

While the focus is often on understanding an individual’s attitudes about and knowledge of safety and safety rules, Plants says, a variety of other factors can inform their propensity for safe behaviors, such as:

  • Risk-taking and sensation-seeking habits
  • Conscientiousness
  • Ability to manage strong emotions, pressure, and stress
  • Beliefs about how much they can control or influence what happens around them
  • Past safety behavior

Because safety knowledge can be provided with on-the-job training, understanding a person’s motivation, values, and attitudes about safety are likely to provide a better basis for evaluating if a candidate is likely to engage in safe behaviors.

“You want to know they’re motivated to act safe,” Plants explains. “Then you can train them with the resources to be safe.”

How can I evaluate if someone is likely to act safe?

Personality-based assessment, behavior-based interviews, and reference checks are some of the traditional paths to understanding a candidate’s attitudes, values, and motivations when it comes to safety. However, some personality items that ask about safety attitudes may be dismissed as transparent and easy to fake with correct answers that obviously conform to popular ideas about what are safe and unsafe behaviors.

Pre-employment assessments allow you to rely on more than just what a candidate tells you in an interview. Strategies for evaluating safety behavior should also include engaging candidates in carefully crafted scenarios to preview how they might react to safety-related situations and prioritize motivations.

For example, a scenario may call for considering shutting down a machine that shows symptoms of failing when faced with the pressure of meeting production quotas. Choosing production over safety in such a situation would provide insight into how that individual may prioritize safety when actually on the job.

Using structured assessments to ask specific questions about a candidate’s work history also can provide insight into past behaviors. Since answers to questions about safety violations and other behaviors in previous roles can easily be verified, candidates are likely to be candid when posed with specific questions. Recruiters equipped with assessment results can then probe past experiences during an interview and gain a better understanding of a candidate’s safety attitudes and values.

How does safety culture influence behavior?

“Selecting employees based on how likely they are to engage in safe behaviors is not enough,” Plants explains. “If you don’t put them in a culture conducive to safety, it isn’t going to do any good.”

A culture that supports safety ensures employees are trained about safe behaviors. It provides a work environment designed to encourage safe behaviors by complying with safety regulations, emphasizing safety procedures, and providing the proper personal protective equipment.

In fact, Plants adds, people who would otherwise practice safe behaviors may not do so in a culture they believe doesn’t support safety or provide them with the resources they need to be safe.

A selection system that provides a realistic preview of the job and includes interview questions that address safety behaviors can help set the stage for how your organization prioritizes safety.

“You need the person and the environment to be on the same page,” Plants advises. “Things go wrong when there is a misalignment of individual and cultural safety values.”

How do I start assessing for safety?

Many of the factors that contribute to safe behavior—conscientiousness, emotional stability, reliability, team work, and other behaviors—are important to other aspects of performance. A whole-person assessment strategy evaluates for the competencies that predict success on the job, including traits that are tied to safe behaviors.

You can’t predict who is going to cause an accident, but you can predict how someone is likely to behave. Since our inception, Shaker has been a leader in partnering with companies to create high-performing workforces. Check out our industry-leading Virtual Job Tryout technology to find out how you can predict the future of safety at your organization.