A Mind for Safety


Published May 25, 2017 11:29 PM by Thomas Montgomery

Every day, the typical person makes between 2,000 and 10,000 decisions. Many of these are conscious choices, while others are done without much thought. For example, when you get in the car, you buckle your seatbelt with little thought because you have done it repeatedly over time.  In this fashion, activities that we do routinely grow to require less concentration or mental focus. The key dimensions here are time and repetition. But since no two experiences are ever the same, only common characteristics of each experience offer the similarity necessary for cognitive development. Safety behavior is developed in a similar fashion. 

We know that experiences occur over time. Consequently, there must be some time related characteristics that correlates with measures of safety. We also know that each experience is different from all other experiences, so we can conclude that diversity of experience also plays a role. But what dimension of experience is most significant? Is diversity of experience more important than repetition? What type of experience is most important? Finally, can differences in these two dimensions predict injuries?

In a study conducted with a large inland marine towing company between June 30, 2014 and July 1, 2015 involving 959 deckcrew, notable differences were found between recordable and no recordable injury groups. In particular, the recordable injury groups tended to be single, younger (27.4 years), have some college education, had less time with the company (21.8 months), and had fewer days of training (2.0 days) than did the no recordable injury group.  

The no recordable injury group tended to be married, much older (35.1 years), had a less than high school education, had more time with the company (94.6 months), and had more days of training (3.5 days). 

These results suggest there are in fact time-related and diversity factors that are linked to safety behavior. Two of the time-related factors used in the study, age and months of work experience, seemed to be measuring similar dimensions of experience because of a strong positive correlation (.720). This seems reasonable in that as one’s time with the company grows, so does the individual’s age. 

The other time related function, number of days of training only had a weak relationship to the other two factors, suggesting that it may not be as closely tied to the time dimension of experience. Conceivably, the number days of training would relate to an individual’s cognitive development, but perhaps the type of training or when the training occurs in a crewmember’s career is fundamentally more important. 

But what about the diversity of experience? Only two factors were found to have a notable difference between recordable and no recordable injury groups. Single crewmembers were found to have significantly more recordable injuries than did married crewmembers, and crewmembers with a less than high school education were found to have no recordable injuries compared to those with some college education. 

The differences noted in education level suggest that work experience is perhaps more valuable than formal education in reducing recordable injuries. This seems reasonable since work experience affords crewmembers the opportunity to develop experience specific to the job such as high water versus low water river conditions; learning the procedures for locking versus non-locking rivers or fleets, and even gaining experience on different rivers (i.e. Ohio versus Cumberland or upper Mississippi). From these experiences, those having a less then high school education could develop rich context specific, mental constructs they then use to assess and avoid hazards. 

But what of the difference between single and married deckcrew? What may be occurring with this finding is some form of time-related effect. Most people begin careers single, and as their age and time with the company increases, they also complete more training. In fact, single deckcrew were significantly younger (31.2 years of age compared to 37.3 years for married), had less time with the company (65.4 months of service versus 107.5 months of service for married) and had fewer days of training (2.0 days vs. 3.5 days of training for married) than the other marital groups. 

Given the noted difference in months of service between the recordable injury groups and the finding associated with those deckcrew having a less than high school education, a time-related relationship seems like the most plausible explanation for the differences noted in marital status. 

A final analysis attempted to identify factors that might predict recordable injuries. Only days of training and months of service were found to be predictors. The results indicated that for every month of service a crewmember had, the odds of having a recordable injury were reduced by 52.8 percent, and for every day of training a deckhand had, the odds of having a recordable injury were reduced by 58.2 percent. These findings imply that context specific experience is perhaps fundamentally more important than formal education in predicting injuries and that deckhand training is equally important in reducing the likelihood of injuries. 


Since safety behavior seems tied to experience, some notable conclusions can be drawn from the findings of the study. First, moderating turnover would be a key step in reducing recordable injuries. The longer an employee stays with the company, the more one’s mental safety patterns develop. Over time these constructions become more stable and difficult it is to change, which is how shortcuts and unsafe behavior also develop. 

Second, diversity of experience is important, but the best results seem to be within the context of work environment. Training that relatives to actual work situations would offer the best opportunity for cognitive development. Lastly, Deckcrew having a recordable injury were found to have an average number of 10.5 months of service compared to 47.3 months for deckcrew with no recordable injuries. 

It follows that if the likelihood of injury can be reduced by 58.2 percent with every additional day of training and most injuries occur around 10 months of service, conducting training prior to this benchmark might serve as an effective means of reducing recordable injuries.

Thomas Montgomery is CEO and President of Inland Rivers HR.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.