Job insecurity can have an impact on worker safety

Ever since downsizing became a reality in corporate America, researchers have spent a great deal of time studying job insecurity and its effects on job satisfaction, employee turnover, and employee health. It wasn’t until recently, however, that anyone took a look at the relationship between job insecurity and employee safety. Now that’s changed, with the publication of a recent study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.1

The researchers examined 237 employees in two food-processing plants, assessing attitudinal outcomes such as job satisfaction, employee knowledge regarding appropriate safety behaviors, and employee motivation to comply with organizational safety policies, in conjunction with self-reported safety violations, on-the-job accidents and workplace injuries.

In one plant, an entire shift had been laid off, and focus-group interviews showed employees expected the plant to be entirely phased out. In the other, the swing shift was being eliminated in favor of a night shift, and employees who could not make the change were expected to lose their jobs. Overall plant production was expected to remain the same in both facilities, however.

The workers first responded to survey instruments immediately after the shift changes and layoffs were announced, and then again six months later. The results were disconcerting for professionals concerned with employee safety. "This study produced important initial evidence that job security is related to meaningful safety outcome measures, such as safety knowledge, safety motivation, and to a lesser degree, by safety knowledge and compliance,"1 the authors write.

A direct relationship

"The thing that really struck me the most was the relationship between being dissatisfied with your job security and how that affected your levels of safety policy knowledge — and your motivation to comply," notes Tahira M. Probst, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University in Vancouver, and the study’s lead author. "That was the biggest contribution of this study — showing the direct relationship." This study, she notes, was the first to link together perceptions of security and these outcomes.

Probst built upon several theories that had been advanced in earlier research, including the following:

  • Employees tend to focus their attention on performance rather than on safety during times of stress.
  • Employees perceive that safety is subordinated to the demands of production.
  • Unsafe behavior may actually be perceived to be rewarding if it allows the employee to perform work tasks more quickly.

This has particular significance for managers of occupational health clinics — as well as for employers, says Probst, noting that employees have a finite amount of "cognitive resources" available to them at any given time. This may make it difficult, if not impossible, for workers to pay attention to quality when their attention is so strongly focused on how much they produce. "Many of the employees we talked with said they were taking shortcuts just to keep production numbers up," recalls Probst. "The emphasis was on doing just as much with fewer resources."

This harsh reality calls for a two-pronged approach for occupational health professionals, Probst suggests. "When dealing with employees, they must be made aware that your job shouldn’t put your health and safety at risk. They need to know that if they’re insecure about their jobs, their mind may be elsewhere -– like thinking about productivity. They need to be equally concerned about safety and health, and to not underestimate the impact of job insecurity."

The best place to start focusing on this issue may be before workers start the job — during the training process — suggests Probst. "One of the things I have taken away from this study is that it implies organizations have to consider the effects job insecurity may have," she observes. "Often companies have incentives for being good producers, but if you look at their safety programs you will most likely see that the only recognition’ they receive is a disincentive, such as a citation or a letter in their files when they do something wrong.

"In my mind, if people are insecure about their jobs, companies need to provide rewards for employees to comply with the safety policy. They also need to think strongly about the message they send to workers about how vital safety is. Otherwise, all the employee will be worried about is what he can do to convince his employer to keep him on the job."

Letting employees know they’re valued

It’s not that organizations don’t care about employee safety, says Probst: they just need to communicate that value more effectively. "Employees can’t perceive that management is just paying lip service to safety," she asserts. "Companies must be concerned about the message they are sending employees."

To demonstrate that commitment to safety, Probst suggests the introduction of incentives. "Basically, companies should offer the same kinds of incentives they use to increase production. Make safety considerations an integral part of whether an employee gets a raise or a promotion, as important as whether or not they show up on time. Companies could offer an Employee-of-the-Month safety award,’ for example," she says.

What’s important, she emphasizes, is a clear, consistent message — through in-house marketing vehicles, signs, and posters in prominent places. "Does the company have supervisors walking around and patting people on the back when they exhibit proper safety practices, or do they just let them know when they’re out of line?" Probst posits.

[For more information, contact: Tahira M. Probst, Department of Psychology, 14204 N.E. Salmon Creek Ave., Vancouver, WA 98686. Telephone: (360) 546-9746. E-mail: probst@vancouver.wsu.edu.]

Reference

1. Probst TM, Brubaker TL. The Effects of Job Insecurity on Employee Safety Outcomes: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Explorations. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 2001; 6:139-159.