The Dread Factor

by Michael J. Burke

Informed policy and practice related to worker safety training is important for ensuring the health and well-being of not only workers but the public as well. One need only look at recent headlines concerning worker safety training in the Gulf of Mexico, site of the largest oil spill recovery effort in U.S. history, or the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, site of the nation’s worst mining disaster in 40 years, for proof of the critical need for more informed safety training policy and practice.

Michael J. Burke

Michael J. Burke is the Lawrence Martin Chair in Business. He holds adjunct appointments in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in Tulane's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

In the case of the Gulf oil spill, David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said that BP’s oil recovery safety training programs were significantly fewer than 40 hours, involved video presentations instead of hands-on training and offering only limited instruction. The insufficient training of these workers is reflected in their behavior: Some of the cleanup workers were reportedly working without gloves and in their regular clothing, meaning they were not only likely coming into direct contact with contaminants, but they were then probably bringing these contaminants into their homes. In the case of the Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 miners died in an explosion in April 2010, media sources indicated that the mine was cited for many violations specific to worker training, half of which were deemed to be significant, meaning there was a reasonable likelihood of these violations resulting in serious injury or death.

In a new article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, my colleagues and I report our findings from a large-scale investigation of worker safety training that informs policy and practice in relation to how workers can be optimally trained to preclude exposure to hazards and handle hazardous events.

For our investigation, we statistically integrated the results from 113 safety training studies conducted since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act in 1971, with a total sample size of 24,694 workers from 16 countries. Our findings indicate that for both the acquisition of safety knowledge and demonstration of safe work behaviors, highly engaging training (e.g., hands-on or simulation training) was considerably more effective than less engaging training (e.g., web-based or lecture-based training) when hazardous event/exposure severity was high. In contrast, highly engaging training and less engaging training had comparable levels of effectiveness when hazardous event/exposure severity was low. These findings qualify the conclusions of the research team from Canada’s Institute for Work & Health and the U.S.’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which reported in 2010 that there was insufficient evidencefor recommending the adoption of high-engagement training (e.g., hands-on or simulation training) under almost any circumstance.

In the article, we discuss how a psychological mechanism referred to as the “dread factor” helps explain the enhanced effectiveness of high-engagement training relative to low-engagement training when workers are being prepared to deal with particularly ominous hazards— for example fires and explosions, exposure to toxic chemicals, radiation, or HIV. The considerable practice and social interaction involved in high-engagement training in handling ominous hazards often brings about “dread” in workers. In this context, dread refers to a realization of the dangers of the work and associated negative emotions resulting from possible hazardous exposures. This realization of the possibility of injury or illness and negative emotions that accompany the realization play a primary role in motivating individuals to learn about how to avoid exposure to such hazards.

From a practical perspective, our findings underscore the importance of more informed organizational and public policies for worker safety training, including how best to prepare workers to preclude or handle disastrous situations such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill recovery effort. Given the breadth of occupations and industries included in our investigation and noting that our findings apply to workers in over 16 countries, efforts to increase the capacity of private and public sector workers to deal with ominous hazards would be well advised to consider the potential benefits of highly engaging forms of training when hazard event/exposure severity is high. Organizations would gain the most utility from highly engaging training methods by applying them specifically to the workers most likely to benefit from them—those in highly hazardous environments. Given that most workers dealing with hazards of an ominous nature are not currently receiving highly engaging training, we think this conclusion is particularly noteworthy.

“The Dread Factor: How Hazards and Safety Training Influence Learning and Performance,” by Michael Burke (Tulane University), Rommel Salvador (University of Washington–Tacoma), Kristin Smith-Crowe (University of Utah), Suzanne Chan-Serafin (University of New South Wales, Australia), and Alexis Smith and Shirley Sonesh (Tulane University), appears in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.