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High-risk employees: Personality factors that can lead to accidents

Posted by Deb Muoio

Jun 25, 2014 10:00:00 AM


Accident proneness isn’t a disposition that one can easily write off as a “quirk.” Some people may admit with a sheepish grin that they’re a bit of a “klutz,” and blame their tendency to cause accidents on a lack of coordination, poor dexterity or other physical afflictions. However, there are also certain personality traits that can make accidents more likely. A study we conducted using WALA (Work Accident Likelihood Assessment) reveals that employees who were more likely to be fired for unsafe behavior possessed a combination of traits. These include:

  • Sensation seeking – A desire for novel and exciting experiences. This is more than wanting to ride the rollercoaster at the amusement park. It’s a strong need to continuously try new and often risky things. In fact, sensation seeking is a common trait in so-called ”adrenaline junkies” as well as people with substance abuse or gambling problems.
  • Lack of harm avoidance – Rather than steering clear of situations that have the potential for negative consequences (e.g. crossing the street without checking both ways), people who lack the harm avoidance trait don’t contemplate the potential for negative consequences as a result of their actions. Harm avoidance is a trait that helps people mitigate risks in general, and can balance out their sensation-seeking urges.
  • Low conscientiousness – Conscientiousness is a trait that many studies have linked to success and is a great advantage in a work setting. Without it, a person is more likely to be careless and irresponsible.
  • Poor attention span – It goes without saying that accidents are more likely to happen when a person is distracted or not paying attention – hence, the warning to not talk on the phone or text while driving. While many people take pride in the fact that they are good multi-taskers, very few of us can actually pull off simultaneous actions (just try a classic: rub your belly while tapping your head). You may be able to sing while taking a shower or stir sauce while chatting with a friend, but when each task requires conscious attention, something’s gotta give … and that’s exactly the moment accidents happen.
  • Lack of respect for rules – You know that ongoing skit where a person is told not to press the red button which inevitably leads to pressing the red button? Well a lack of respect for rules may not necessarily lead to an explosion, but not following them increases the chances that someone will get hurt.
  • Lack of accountability – When kids do something that results in a mess or accident, we often let it slide because they didn’t know any better. However, if an adult intentionally does something risky that could result in a mishap and is not willing to take responsibility for his or her actions, this cannot be written off as ignorance. Simply put, if a person does not take responsibility for his or her actions (and maybe even blames accidents on outside factors), this is a problem … and another accident waiting to happen.

So who is more likely to possess this profile? Age comparisons we conducted reveal that men and women below the age of 25 tend to be the most accident prone. Traits like sensation seeking and rule breaking decreased with age, while harm avoidance, conscientiousness, attentiveness, and accountability increase with age. Older adults were also more likely to have a strict attitude toward safety rules – and less tolerance toward those who neglect to follow them.

There is one caveat however: It’s important to understand that the traits that contribute to accident proneness should be taken as a whole – as a profile. Sensation-seeking alone, for example, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and combined with high conscientious, you’ll have an employee who is likely to be a confident and calculated risk-taker. Some jobs in fact require a higher level of sensation-seeking balanced with the right amount of harm-avoidance: rescue workers, fire-fighters, police officers, and high-rise construction workers just to name a few. However, if you have an employee who is a sensation-seeker, is not conscientious, and who views rules with contempt, you may have someone who is going to be more of a liability in a job where “safety first” is essential.

On the flipside, performance ratings are highest for those who have a strict attitude toward safety, who are attentive and responsible, and who score well on conscientiousness, a trait that has been found to be crucial in high-risk jobs like police officers (Detrick & Chibnall, 2006) and production workers (Wallance & Vodanovich, 2003), and to be a strong predictor of job performance in general, across different occupations (Stewart, 1999). Our study on accident-prone workers also reveals that:

  • 64% would quit their job without finding a new one first.
  • 80% will bend safety rules to save time or effort.
  • 87% believe that rules are made to be broken.
  • 91% admitted that they are easily distracted by things happening around them (e.g. phone ringing, conversations nearby, etc.).
  • 94% admitted that if they don’t see the point of a rule, they won’t follow it.
  • Only 9% would intervene if they saw a colleague breaking an important safety rule.
  • Only 10% ask for advice from a colleague or supervisor before making risky decisions/maneuvers.
  • Only 10% wear their seatbelt every time they are in a car.
  • Only 14% stated that they check their work carefully before considering it done.

Screening for accident-related personality traits can be a crucial part of the hiring process, especially for jobs where safety is a top priority. It’s a lot easier and cheaper than dealing with the physical and psychological impact of work-related accidents, all the direct and indirect cost in terms of time and money, or firing unsafe employees after they caused trouble.

If you’re interested in using WALA (Work Accident Likelihood Assessment) or other tests for HR purposes, request a free trial for ARCH Profile here.

Want to learn more about using psychological tests for hiring, leadership development, career development or talent retention? Download our free eBook loaded with down-to-earth information about psychological testing for HR purposes. 

Request your free trial of ARCH Profile!

Topics: Wellbeing at Work, Hiring, Work Accidents, Personality Assessment, Pre-employment Testing, Training

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