What are ‘individual factors’ and how to they affect health and safety?

In the previous two articles in this series on human factors, we looked at organisational and job factors. This time, we’ll turn our attention to individual factors.

Individual Factors

Every human being is unique and is the sum of a complex range of physical and psychological characteristics and attributes; and socio-cultural influences. People bring their personal characteristics and attributes to their work. Individual factors influence behaviour in complex and significant ways and may be strengths or weaknesses depending on the circumstances.

Some negative personal characteristics may be addressed by ergonomic design; some characteristics such as skills and attitudes, may be changed or enhanced by training and development; and others such as personality are thought to be fixed and cannot be changed.

The following table lists various factors, characteristics or attributes about individuals that can have an impact on behaviour. Some are then discussed in a little more detail below.

Physical Psychological Socio-cultural
·       Gender

·       Age

·       Physical abilities

·       Physique

·       Health state

·       Personality traits

·       Motivation

·       Attitudes

·       Perceptions

·       Mental abilities

·       Family background

·       Religion

·       Socioeconomic status

·       Education

·       Peer pressure/work culture



An attitude represents an individual’s degree of like or dislike (positive or negative view) of an object, where the object may be a person, place, thing, or event. An attitude involves thoughts, feelings and predispositions to act towards an object. Attitudes can be modified as a consequence of feedback on behaviour and are also influenced by the prevailing attitude of a peer group.


Personality is made up of a person’s unique characteristic pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Personality arises from within the individual and remains fairly consistent throughout life. Personality has certain fundamental characteristics, including, Consistency: People act in the same ways or similar ways in a variety of situations. Psychological and physiological: Personality is a psychological construct, but is influenced by biological processes and needs. Impact upon behaviours: Personality does not just influence behaviour; it causes people to act in certain ways. Multiple expressions: Personality is expressed in thoughts, feelings, close relationships and other social interactions.

Training and development

Training is: “organised efforts to assist learning through instruction and practise” Training tends to be practical, dealing with concrete concepts and “hands-on” skills. It may be job-specific, seeking to improve performance in a current role; or developmental – which involves longer-term planning to get the best out of an individual through following career stages.


Motivation is the reason to act or the driving force which gives purpose and direction to behaviour. Motivation can impact upon behaviour in three ways: It gives purpose to and activates the behaviour, directs the behaviour towards a particular goal and sustains the behaviour and level of effort (perseverance) until the goal is achieved. People are generally well motivated at work if they understand the importance of the objectives they are tasked to achieve, the objectives are realistic and achievable and satisfactory achievement of the objective results in personal fulfilment and/or a tangible reward.


Perception is the process by which sensation is organised and interpreted to make sense of the world. People take in information through the senses (i.e. touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste; and other senses regarding positioning and balance). To prevent sensory overload, the brain is selective. Not all sensory information attracts attention. Finally, the information is processed and made sense of. The process can be affected at each stage. The senses may be ineffective due to: illness (could not smell something because of a cold); disability (could not hear the alarm because of deafness); or PPE (vision restricted by safety goggles or hearing impeded by ear defenders). A person’s attention may not be attracted because of focus elsewhere or may be distracted by something else. The processing of the information may be flawed because of a lack of knowledge; previous experience; or the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Risk Perception

In addition to the possible health and safety effects arising from basic perception of workplace information it is important to consider the issue of risk perception. HSE research has identified eight distinct factors that will influence an individual’s perception of risk

Perceived Control

When people feel in control of a risk they don’t feel stressed by it. This has been shown to be a key factor in the acceptability of risk.

Psychological Time and Risk

Warnings about the link between smoking and lung cancer have been ineffective in stopping people smoking, because the time lag between smoking and the onset of lung cancer can be up to 40 years. If workers in a chemical plant were instructed to evacuate the workplace because of a leak of a toxic substance that posed the same level of risk but with imminent effects they would not hesitate.


Research has shown that there is truth in the old adage “familiarity breeds contempt”. People tend to underestimate familiar risks and overestimate unfamiliar risks.


People with the perception of low vulnerability or invulnerability (to the consequences of smoking, drink driving, sexual activity etc.) are not likely to modify their behaviour. Some people have an ‘unrealistic optimism’, and assume that the harmful consequences will happen to someone else. This makes them more willing to take risks in all areas of their lives, including the workplace. Young men, in particular, may be prone to feeling invulnerable.


The way risk-based data is presented (or framed) has been shown to introduce significant biases. Changing the description of a risk from positive to negative (i.e. talk about costs rather than benefits or losses rather than gains) will have a measurable effect on observed behaviour.

Numerical Representations

Many people experience difficulty in understanding and interpreting statistical probabilities, thus the need to introduce additional qualitative characteristics to enable the conceptualisation of risk.

Perception of Hazardous Substances

Workplace studies have shown workers to perceive the risk associated with water-based pesticides to be lower than solvent-based, because water is natural and inert, and must, therefore, be lower risk than solvent. This is irrational as it does not consider the risk of the pesticide itself.

Risky Situation or Risky Individual?

Individual differences and situational factors can interact and prompt risk-taking behaviours. Researchers that emphasise the significance of the individual variables have identified links between maturity, personality types and risk-taking behaviour. One theory suggests that individuals are equipped with ‘risk thermostats’, and that safety interventions do not affect the setting of the thermostat. Regardless of workplace controls the individual will behave in a way that maintains the level of risk with which he was originally content.