How Attitude and Behaviour Can Affect Health & Safety


People are involved in all aspects of work. Human factors are concerned with three interrelated areas:

  • What people are being asked to do (the job and its characteristics);
  • Who is doing it (the individual and their competence);
  • Where they are working (the organisation and its attributes).

The job

Tasks should be designed in accordance with ergonomic principles to take into account limitations and strengths in human performance. Matching the job to the person will ensure that they are not overloaded and that the most effective contribution to the business results. Physical match includes the design of the whole workplace and working environment. Mental match involves the individual’s information and decision-making requirements, as well as their perception of the tasks and risks. Mismatches between job requirements and people’s capabilities provide the potential for human error.

The individual

People bring to their job personal attitudes, skills, habits and personalities which can be strengths or weaknesses depending on the task demands.
Individual characteristics influence behaviour in complex and significant ways. Their effects on task performance may be negative and may not always be mitigated by job design. Some characteristics such as personality are fixed and cannot be changed. Others, such as skills and attitudes, may be changed or enhanced.

The organisation

Organisational factors have the greatest influence on individual and group behaviour, yet they are often overlooked during the design of work and
during investigation of accidents and incidents. Organisations need to establish their own positive health and safety culture. The culture needs to promote employee involvement and commitment at all levels, emphasising that deviation from established health and safety standards is not acceptable.

Organisation factors are often overlooked during the design of jobs but have a significant influence on individual and group behaviour. A number of organisational factors have been found to be associated with good safety performance. The key ones are:

  • Effective communication – a high level of communication between and within levels of the organisation and comprehensive formal and informal communications.
  • Learning organisation – the organisation continually improves its own methods and learns from mistakes.
  • Health and safety focus – a strong focus by everyone in the organisation on health and safety.
  • External pressures – pressures from outside the organisation including a buoyant financial state of the organisation, and the impact of regulatory bodies.
  • Committed resources – time, money and staff devoted to health and safety showing strong evidence of commitment.
  • Participation – staff at different levels in the organisation identify hazards, suggest control measures, provide feedback, and feel they ‘own’ safety procedures.
  • Management visibility – senior managers show commitment and are visible ‘on the shop floor’.
  • Balance of productivity and safety – the need for production is properly balanced against health and safety so that the latter are not ignored.
  • High quality training – training is properly managed, the content is well-chosen and the quality is high. Counting the hours spent on training is not enough.
  • A clean and comfortable working environment – including general housekeeping, the design and layout of the plant.
  • Job satisfaction – confidence, trust and recognition of good safety performance impact.
  • Workforce composition – a significant proportion of older, more experienced and socially stable workers. This group tend to have fewer accidents, lower absenteeism and less turnover.

Being aware of a hazard

People are normally concerned with doing a good job rather than being consciously aware or concerned about the health and safety hazards in their workplace. At appropriate times, we need to be able to switch over to a more conscious and focused way of thinking about the risks and controls.

There are a number of influences on whether a person feels at risk from a hazard. A risk is seen as being greater if we perceive it as having severe consequences or if we feel personally vulnerable. If we feel that the available controls are of limited effectiveness, this can lead to us dismissing the threat. Overconfidence, over-optimism or over-familiarity may act to reduce our appraisal of a hazard as significant. There are also well-known biases in individual risk perception which will influence our appraisal of a hazard.

People are bad at judging probability and especially bad at judging risk. This is important because accident rates tend to be higher in groups of people who estimate risks as low. Typically we underestimate the risks attached to our own work. This tendency is greater in familiar situations or where we choose ourselves to take a risk.

People with different roles in the same workplace may judge risks differently. In general we make a lower risk estimation of our own job than of other jobs. For example, workers in the construction industry were asked to estimate the risk of falls by different tradesmen. These included carpenters, tile layers, scaffolders, painters and steel erectors. Each of these groups made consistent judgements but overestimated the risks of trades other than their own by about 10%. They all underestimated their own risks.

To improve our appreciation of risks we need information about the hazard, risk estimates, exposure modes, and available control measures. If individual workers can be made to feel personally vulnerable then this is also helpful. Fear-inducing messages are not usually advisable since people are more likely to reject a threatening fear-inducing message and to assume that the message is for someone else. Constant pressure is needed to make sure that judgements of risk are realistic.

Believing you can control the risks

We ask ourselves how effective our actions might be in controlling the risks. We weigh up the benefits of carrying out safe behaviours against the costs we will incur. For example, a construction worker may weigh up the costs such as physical discomfort of wearing a hard hat in hot weather against the benefits. The ‘costs’ are typically time, reduced productivity and physical discomfort. We also consider how effective the available actions or procedures may be and whether we can carry them out. For example if a health worker believes that they will be able to dispose of used needles safely this will influence their safe behaviour.

Behaving safely

Maintaining safe behaviour is highly dependent on safety culture including group norms and workplace influences.

If supervisors and managers appear to condone unsafe behaviour in order to achieve productivity goals then safe behaviour will be less likely. Other barriers to safe behaviour include:

  • equipment which is not readily available or in good order;
  • not being trained to use the equipment provided;
  • a job which is designed in a way which makes it hard to behave safely; and
  • other peoples’ risk-taking behaviours.

A major influence will be what we see our co-workers doing. So if very few other workers wear hearing protection in a noisy environment then this will not encourage us to comply with the safe behaviour. Managers and supervisors need to be aware that group social norms for safe behaviour exist. They need to set a good example and positively influence such standards of behaviour.