Understanding Risk Tolerance: Why some workers don’t wear safety eyewear

August 10, 2022

By Glyn Jones, for Eyesafe/Alberta Association of Optometrists

Although safety eyewear has a been fixture on most worksites for decades, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) reports that every day 700 Canadian workers sustain eye injuries on the job. Each injury costs Canadian employers between $1,000 and $80,000 per injury in lost production time, medical expenses, and workers’ compensation. The CNIB reports that simply wearing the proper safety eyewear could have prevented more than 90% of the reported incidents.

So, why don’t workers wear their safety eyewear? Why would they take the risk of losing their sight? The most common answer given by construction workers with eye injuries is, “I didn’t think that I needed it.”  They either didn’t see the risk, or they didn’t think an injury would happen to them.

In essence, the major cause of serious eye injury is employee error in not wearing safety eyewear or not always wearing it while on the worksite. Safety professionals refer to this as intentional error because the employee, whether knowingly or unknowingly, is risking a serious eye injury. A major component in managing this behaviour involves competency development and assessment through education and training, and reinforcement of proper behaviours.

A great deal of work was done by the safety professionals at Imperial Oil in the late 1990s and early 2000s to understand employee risk tolerance.  They suggest there are seven factors that may increase an employee’s risk tolerance and there are three factors that increase the likelihood of 100% safety eyewear use for high-risk jobs and tasks.

Let’s consider the major factors that impact an employee’s risk perception and how aspects of education, training, competency development, and competency assessment can be used to increase the likelihood of safety eyewear use and compliance.

  1. Overestimating Capability/Experience – Generally, workers with many years of experience over-estimate their ability to do a job without eye injury. What is needed is regular refresher training related to high-risk tasks to reinforce best practices. Recognition of good work habits needs to be rewarded and corrective action needs to be taken immediately when risk-taking behaviours are noted.
  1. Familiarity with the Task – Familiarity with a high-risk job or task leads to complacency. Employees who repeatedly undertake work that we would all agree is at high risk for an eye injury regularly down-rate the risk. This can lead to procedural short cuts including not wearing safety eyewear, which can lead to disaster. Regular refresher training and formalized competency re-assessment will reduce this risk factor.
  1. Voluntary Actions and Being in Control – When exposure to a risk is seen as a voluntary action and part of an action where the employee is in control, the associated risks are more easily accepted. Formalized work planning built around specific procedures creates a structure. A structured work routine reduces the sense that activities are voluntary, and this reduces an employees’ acceptance of risk.
  1. Confidence in the Equipment – Employees come to believe that technologically advanced and sophisticated equipment is infallible. Such as, employees believing that with a good grinding wheel and a proper grinder there is less chance of errant metal particles being ejected. Effective training needs to include explaining the limitations of equipment and reinforcement of the need for safety eyewear.
  1. Confidence in Protection and Rescue – Employees may consciously or sub-consciously expose themselves to risk thinking that the emergency response plan, a call to 911, and good medical care can “save the day” if something goes wrong. Eye injury emergency response training and practice drills or scenarios need to reinforce that the protective system may fail, and rescue only reduces the severity of impact. It does not prevent the incident.
  1. Potential Gain or Profit from Actions – The implications of short-cutting needs to be part of every training and re-fresher program. Strong messaging from senior leadership is best incorporated into regular communications or refresher training to create a strong connection between the senior leader’s message and the need to always wear safety eyewear.
  1. Role Models Accepting Risk – Employees need to see their supervisors or managers wearing safety eyewear whenever they are in the workplace. Non-compliant behaviour is “normalized” if supervisors and managers are not walking the talk.
  1. Explain the Seriousness of Potential Outcomes – If employees understand and can internalize the negative outcomes associated with forgetting to wear safety eyewear, they are less likely to voluntarily take the risk. Hearing the direct message from an injured employee and including them in ongoing training and education programming can be an effective mechanism to help employees understand the seriousness of the potential outcomes of risky behaviours.
  1. Personal Experience with Potential Outcome – Employees who have experienced a serious eye injury are most likely to manage the risk and avoid all unnecessary exposure. The best example for employees is a colleague that can explain what happened to them and how they could have avoided the negative outcome by wearing safety eyewear. Using training exercises that include the re-enactment of serious eye injury incidents are effective in reducing risk taking behaviours.
  1. The Cost of Non-Compliance – Helping employees to understand the full cost of an eye injury at work will improve compliance and reduce employees’ risk taking. Every employee needs to participate in an education program that incudes calculating the total direct and indirect cost of a range of eye injury incidents. The concept of the iceberg of costs related to injury incidents needs to be a part of every employee’s regular orientation and refresher education.

The major components of eye injury risk reduction involve competency development, education, training and job observation. Application of these risk reduction elements offer simple steps to eye injury prevention.

Glyn Jones is a partner at EHS Partnerships Ltd. in Calgary. He is a consulting occupational health and safety professional with 35 years of experience. He is a regular safety conference speaker in Canada, and he provides program design and instructional support to the University of New Brunswick’s OHS certificate and diploma programs.

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