Individual Differences in Accident Liability: A Review and Integrative Approach

By Lawton, Rebecca; Parker, Dianne | Human Factors, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Individual Differences in Accident Liability: A Review and Integrative Approach


Lawton, Rebecca, Parker, Dianne, Human Factors


INTRODUCTION

Historical Background to Accident Liability

Two important changes in British industrial practices were held responsible for the dramatic increase in accidents in the early part of this century. The first was the increased pressure of work and the speeding up of machines, and the second was the drafting of younger and older men as well as women into the workplace, while "able-bodied men" joined the armed services. The pioneering statistical work of Greenwood and Woods (1919) was carried out within this context. Their report to the Industrial Fatigue Research Board stated that the results "afford strong grounds for thinking that the bulk of the accidents occur to a limited number of individuals who have a special susceptibility to accidents and suggest that the explanation of this susceptibility is to be found in the personality of the individuals" (preface).

Newbold (1927) and Farmer and Chambers (1926) continued the work of Greenwood and Woods, broadening the concept of unequal liability for accidents. Newbold showed that there was consistency in the individual's tendency to have an accident in various circumstances (e.g., accidents at work and home), based on statistical evidence. In 1926, Farmer and Chambers took a further step, separating accident proneness as a special factor within accident liability. However, the statistical methods used were not sophisticated, and there was no means to separate a tendency to report accidents from a tendency to have accidents.

Moreover, as Adelstein (1952) emphasized, many of the early studies (Dunbar, 1943; Tillman & Hobbs, 1949; Wong & Hobbs, 1949) had serious methodological flaws. There were two main problems: First, differences in the level of exposure to risk of the so-called accident-prone group were not considered. Second, most of the studies were retrospective, and the researchers had previous knowledge about which of their participants were accident prone. In spite of these flaws, the findings could not be dismissed outright because they were supported by a more rigorous prospective study of pupil pilots (Biesheuvel & White, 1949) that showed differences in intelligence, skill, and personality between an accident group of 200 pilots and a nonaccident group of 400 pilots.

Following this early research, the incorrect assumption was made that if chance factors alone were acting, all persons in the population would have the same number of accidents. As a relatively small proportion of individuals appeared to be responsible for a relatively large proportion of accidents, the notion of accident proneness gained a life of its own, particularly as it appeared to excuse factory managers from the responsibility for removing or controlling hazards in the workplace. In theory, the "solution" to the problem was to remove those people who, because of some "flaw" in their personality, were unable to cope with these hazards.

Consequently, the focus of research was to isolate those factors that make an individual accident prone. In fact, it proved impossible to produce an overall stable profile of the accident-prone individual or to determine whether someone had an accident-prone personality. Moreover, people seemed to become accident prone for limited periods, rather than continually throughout their lives. Of accident repeaters, Reason (1974) stated that "examination of accident repeaters over a lengthy period indicates that they are members of a club which is continuously changing its membership" (p. 187). In the same vein, Porter (1988) suggested that accident proneness is not an enduring trait that attaches itself to the individual but, rather, is more likely to arise from a combination of predispositions and circumstances (e.g., an anxious individual who is overworked and is operating a new machine for the first time).

More recent studies have also failed to provide convincing evidence for the accident-proneness concept. …

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