The Power of the Mind: Using Cognitive Psychology to Prevent SIFs


Josh Williams, Ph.D.

According to OSHA, more than 14 people die on the job every day and most of these occur in high risk work environments.1 Specifically, 21% of all workplace fatalities in the U.S. occurred with construction workers, there were more than 1500 deaths in the oil and gas industry over the last decade, and recent studies show utilities are becoming the highest risk industry for SIFs.2-4 Something needs to be done to prevent these serious injuries and fatalities from occurring.

Cognitive Psychology to the Rescue

Seminal cognitive psychology research demonstrates the power individuals’ thoughts and feelings play in shaping future behavior. Julian Rotter introduced “internal locus of control” which demonstrates that people who believe they control the outcomes in their lives are happier, healthier, and more successful than those who believe outside factors determine their fate. Albert Bandura demonstrated the influence of “self-efficacy” (one’s self-confidence to successfully accomplish goals and overcome obstacles) to improve performance in business, athletics, and other fields. Albert Ellis developed “Rational Emotive Therapy” as a means for therapy patients to challenge irrational thoughts and then reframe them in a more positive and realistic light to lead more productive lives.5

Successful applications of cognitive psychology are also shown to improve organizational safety performance. Meta-analysis results (from multiple studies) show that improved safety motivation, personal control, safety awareness, social support, organizational commitment, and perceptions of leadership commitment are associated with improved safety performance.6-9. Recommendations to improve safety performance from cognitive psychology are provided below:
• Drive self-motivation for safety. Research shows that intrinsic motivation is three times stronger than external motivation in terms of employee participation in safety efforts.10 Self-motivated employees are more likely to follow safety rules. Also, when employees are motivated to work safely and believe safety is important, they are significantly more likely to carry out activities that help overall organizational safety even if it doesn’t directly contribute to their own safety. This ultimately leads to a reduction in organizational injuries.11
• Increase personal buy-in for safety. Employees who internalize safety efforts instead of simply following rules to avoid discipline are less likely to get hurt. Statistically significant reductions in injuries are found when employees internalize and buy-in to company safety efforts/procedures.6,12
• Elevate safety awareness. Employees with higher safety awareness are less likely to get injured and those with better hazard recognition experience five times fewer injuries.13,14
• Promote teamwork and belonging. As perceived social support increases, there is a strong, statistically significant reduction in injuries.7 Increasing coworker-to-coworker helping behaviors is associated with a statistically significant decrease in incidents.15
• Improve employee engagement. Engaged employees are 5 times less likely than disengaged employees to have a safety incident and 7 times less likely to have a lost-time safety incident.16

Call to Action

Many safety initiatives fail because they don’t address the thoughts and opinions of front-line employees. Company initiatives may feel overly programmatic and bureaucratic when employee attitudes are ignored. This leads to disjointed, siloed, and “flavor of the month” programs that have short-term, minimal impact. To combat this, organizational leaders should focus on attitudes to drive long-term, meaningful change in their organizations.

This typically involves a) safety culture assessments to delineate strengths to reinforce and weaknesses to shore up, b) strategic planning to solidify a plan of attack moving forward, c) safety culture and soft skills training for leaders and front-line employees to increase discretionary effort, and d) ongoing efforts to improve cultural issues. When done correctly, these action steps fuel key attitude, behavior, and systems changes needed to prevent serious injuries and fatalities.

At Propulo, we can help you improve your culture and systems to improve employees’ attitudes and personal ownership for safety.

5. Williams, J. H. (2010). Keeping People Safe: The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes
6. Christian, M. S., Bradley, J. C., Wallace, J. C., & Burke, M. J. (2009). Workplace safety: A meta-analysis of the roles of person and situation factors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(5), 1103-1127.
7. Nahrgang, J. D., Morgeson, F. P., & Hofmann, D. A. (2011). Safety at work: a meta-analytic investigation of the link between job demands, job resources, burnout, engagement, and safety outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(1), 71-94.
8. Clarke, S. (2006). The relationship between safety climate and safety performance: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 11(4), 315-327.
9. Beus, J. M., Dhanani, L. Y., & McCord, M. A. (2011). Meta-analysis of personality and workplace safety: Addressing unanswered questions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(2), 481-498
10. Scott, N., Fleming, M., & Kelloway, E. K. (2014). Understanding why employees behave safely from a self-determination theory perspective. In M. Gagné (Ed.), Oxford library of psychology. The Oxford handbook of work engagement, motivation, and self-determination theory (pp. 276-294). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.
11. Neal, A., & Griffin, M. A. (2006). A study of the lagged relationships among safety climate, safety motivation, safety behavior, and accidents at the individual and group levels. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(4), 946-953.
12. Beus, J. M., Payne, S. C., Bergman, M. E., & Arthur, W. (2010). Safety climate and injuries: an examination of theoretical and empirical relationships. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(4), 713-727.
13. Barling, J., Kelloway, E. K., & Iverson, R. D. (2003). Accidental outcomes: Attitudinal consequences of workplace injuries. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 8, 74-85.
14. Allahyari, T., Rangi, N. H., Khalkhali, H., & Khosravi, Y. (2014). Occupational cognitive failures and safety performance in the workplace. International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics, 20(1), 175-180.
15. Curcuruto, M., Parker, S. K., & Griffin, M. A. (2019). Proactivity towards workplace safety improvement: an investigation of its motivational drivers and organizational outcomes. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. 28(2), 221-238.
16. Vance, R.J. (2006). Employee engagement and commitment. SHRM Foundation.