Volume 5, Issue 1, 2001
This editorial is being written in the shadow of the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, as thousands lie dead in the ruins of the World Trade towers and the Pentagon. It occurred to me that this incident has very much threatened our global and personal feelings of what it means to feel ‘safe’. While the connection between this incident and occupational accidents is a loose one, connections do exist. The concept of control comes to mind as an issue common to both perspectives.
A study by Eyssen, Hoffman and Spengler in 1980 reviewed manager’s attitudes and the occurrence of accidents in a phone company. (Eyssen, Hoffman and Spengler, 1980)The conclusions drew a clear link between beliefs of controllability and accident records. Hale and Glendon, in their excellent publication Individual Behaviour in the Control of Danger note that "genuine feelings of control and responsibility are likely to be a necessary precursor to successful action." (Hale and Glendon, 1987)
The increase of precarious employment – a growing phenomenon in Australia and other post-industrial nations, is more than likely to diminish exactly these sorts of feelings. As Mayhew and Quinlan note in this volume :
"Even those precarious workers covered by workers’ compensation insurance are less likely to claim than other workers for two key reasons: uncertainty of coverage and fear of consequences if a claim is made. Thus injured precarious workers are more reliant on their own resources after injury, to externalise injury treatment costs onto taxpayer funded resources, or to leave injuries and illness untreated with a potential to develop into chronic conditions." (Mayhew and Quinlan, 2001)
It is not a long stretch to extrapolate that often these workers are likely to feel both a lack of control and diminished responsibility within their employment situation.
The concept of a ‘locus of control’ has been well noted – whether the locus exists within the person or beyond them in the external environment. Controllability is a complex phenomenon, but the relationship between controllability and risk perception is a strong one. Smith and Hutching’s article in this issue suggest that a delineation is made between nurses’ perceptions of risk in the workplace and the actual risks associated withmusculoskeletal disorders, occupational violence and sharps injuries.
Controllability is also very much a system issue. Hale and Glendon note that "a prerequisite of harm is that there are large quantities of energy locked up in a system, which can be released if it goes out of control." (Hale and Glendon, 1987)The paper by Larsson et.al. (in this issue) on the development of improved solutions for emergency braking in rotating action machines, is an obvious example of a project developed to control the energy locked up in these types of systems. (Larsson, Braefelt, Astervik and Knutsson, 2001)The manipulation of control in the workplace must occur in a careful way. Mild challenges to a person’s feeling of control may evoke a positive response, but more serious threats may be both extremely unpleasant and trigger unhealthy and/or unsafe coping and avoidance mechanisms.
Finally, as the United States and their allies move to formulate a plan to stop such a horrific event ever happening again, they are faced with the question of what controls are available to them to indeed achieve this goal. But if all the money in the world cannot effectively control a country’s borders, then perhaps our eyes should also turn to other preventative measures. Prevention in OHS also requires a multi-faceted approach, exemplified by the broad range of articles contained in this edition of The Safety Science Monitor.
Eyssen, G., J. Hoffman and R. Spengler (1980). "Managers attitudes and the occurence of accidents in a telephone company." Journal of Occupational Accidents 2(4): 291-304.Hale, A. and A. I. Glendon (1987). Individual behaviour in the control of danger. Amsterdam, Elsevier.Larsson, T., O. Braefelt, M. Astervik and E. Knutsson (2001). "Prevention of injury associated with rotating action machines." Safety Science Monitor 5(1): 22-27.
Mayhew, C. and M. Quinlan (2001). "The effects of changing patterns of employment on reporting occupational injuries and making workers compensation claims." Safety Science Monitor 5(1): 1-12.