Accidents Are Most Likely to Occur Under Moderately Hazardous Work Conditions

It is unreasonable to expect workers to maximize safety behaviors at all times. Doing so is inefficient and comes at the expense of productivity. Instead, individuals tend to adjust safety behaviors to meet the demands of the situation.

Although most individuals understand the need to use safety behaviors to compensate for hazardousness in their work environments, most people also underestimate the degree to which safety behaviors must be increased, particularly within moderately hazardous contexts. As a result, the highest incidence of accidents occurs in moderately hazardous work environments. Thus, to keep accidents to a minimum, additional emphasis on moderately hazardous work environments is warranted.

For most workers, avoiding accidents is a constraint, rather than a primary objective. Although there are some work roles for which preventing accidents is the primary task (e.g., safety officer), for most occupations this is not the case. Instead, most individuals pursue primary work goals, yet must do so in a manner that minimizes accidents. Thus, there is often a trade-off between safety and productivity.

The article argues that the relationship between workplace hazardousness and accidents is best characterized as an inverted-U, such that accidents are most likely to occur within moderately hazardous environments. Specifically, whereas highly hazardous work environments are strong situations in which there is a clear need for a high degree of safety behavior, the amount of safety behavior needed to minimize accidents within moderately hazardous environments is more ambiguous.

Drawing on self-regulatory theories of work motivation, we argue that most individuals tend to exhibit a proportional response to hazardousness, such that moderately hazardous environments are met with a moderate degree of safety behavior. However, it was demonstrated that proportional responses to hazardousness will ultimately yield an inverted-U relationship between hazardousness and accidents.

Instead, a sharp, non-linear increase in safety behavior is needed to keep accidents at a low and constant level as hazardousness increases. We present four studies to test our hypotheses. Studies 1 and 2 used archival data to test this hypothesis of an inverted-U relationship between hazardousness and accidents in natural work settings.

Studies 3 and 4 were experiments which replicated this finding, and more importantly, demonstrated that the inverted-U relationship between hazardousness and accidents was driven by a failure to sharply increase safety behavior in response to small increases in hazardousness.

The conclusion of the implications of these results calls for safety literature, particularly the need to educate workers regarding the pattern of safety behavior needed to fully offset environmental hazardousness.

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This research was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant (435-2018-0488) awarded to James W. Beck and Abigail A. Scholer. A previous version of this research was presented at the 32nd meeting of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychologists in Orlando, FL.