Stress: The hidden factor in workplace accidents

by on January 31, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

A line worker rushing to keep up with production starts skipping the daily equipment check at the beginning of her shift.

A construction worker, thinking about an argument with his buddy, absentmindedly ties off his safety harness to an unanchored beam.

An office worker rushing through a crowded parking lot steps in front of a delivery truck.

Three random safety lapses? Not entirely. These are all examples of workers under stress.

Stress and safety
Over the past 20 years, the number of people reporting that stress affects their work has increased fourfold. Yet stress is often overlooked in safety programs. After all, there’s no OSHA standard, and it may seem to be an issue for HR. But it’s worth your attention for two reasons:

  • Stressed-out workers will have more accidents. Look closely at any injury or near miss, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a stressed worker. They’re the ones who get distracted, cut corners and put safety on a back burner.
  • Stress makes people sicker. People who take time off work for stress miss an average of 20 days. Stress creates more lost workdays, and the absenteeism creates even more stress on other workers.

‘Cycle of distress’
According to Ted Boyce, a behavioral scientist who specializes in workplace safety, the psychology of stress at work is subtle and insidious.

Unless people are made aware of its causes and symptoms, they may get caught in a “cycle of distress” – where stress leads to fatigue leads to more stress – before they can figure out what’s happening.

Managing it
So what can you do to manage and mitigate stress in your workplace?

Boyce says there are both macro- and micro-answers. The former have to do with overall workplace culture, the latter with employees’ daily routines.

Let’s look at the big picture first. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) sees five big stressors in the workplace:

  • Lack of participation in decision-making, leading employees to feel their work lives are out of their hands.
  • Lack of support from co-workers and/or supervisors, creating feelings of isolation.
  • Conflicting or unclear job expectations.
  • Physical environment problems like noise or crowding.
  • Job insecurity.

Most Safety Directors can’t address these issues directly. But you can bring them to the attention of senior management and point out the potential safety consequences.

Also, you might want to organize a companywide initiative to look at stress, in partnership with HR, operations and facilities management.

You can start with NIOSH’s research ( to help persuade other managers that stress is both a productivity and a safety issue.

Changing it up
Where Safety Directors can have the most immediate impact, however, is by helping employees “bust stress” through healthy changes in their routines.

Here are some of those changes you may want to encourage:

  • Be punctual. Employees can reduce their feeling of being rushed – a major contributor to stress – by arriving at work on time, and returning from lunch and breaks on time as well.
  • Enjoy R&R. Employees need their regularly scheduled breaks. Anybody who frequently works through breaks is a high-potential stress candidate, and thus at risk.
  • Break the monotony. Even an efficient routine can become stressful if it’s never varied. Encourage workers to mix things up a little.
  • Monitor physical responses. Help workers heed the physiological signs of stress – such rapid breathing or heart rate, tenseness and headaches. When these symptoms strike, even a two-minute break for fresh air and deep breathing can help a lot.
  • Take control where possible. Encourage people to personalize their areas, and also to keep their workplace clean and organized. Frustration at an inability to find materials or tools adds substantially to existing stress.
  • Say “no” when appropriate. The pressure of conflicting expectations, one of the big stressors, can be more easily managed by employees who know how to say “no” at the right times and in the right way.

This could be a can of worms, so you’ll need to educate both employees and supervisors on this one. The key is to educate workers to use their judgment and who recognize conflicting expectations when they arise – and ask for help, rather than stress out and wait until it’s too late to report a problem.

Source: Boyce,

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