In Brief

People who feel insecure in their jobs are more likely to ignore safety procedures at work than are people with greater job security, according to a study.

The research, published in this month's issue of the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (Vol. 6, No. 2), is the first to probe how feelings of job insecurity are linked to safety motivation, knowledge and compliance, says Tahira Probst, PhD, an industrial/organizational psychologist at Washington State University Vancouver, who conducted the research with student Ty Brubaker.

"This research brings greater clarity and visibility to some of the bottom-line costs to job insecurity," comments Steven Sauter, PhD, chief of the Organizational Science and Human Factors Branch of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Probst and Brubaker's study included managers and line employees at two food-processing plants. Both plants had recently had layoffs and other organizational changes that affected workers' feelings of job security. The researchers surveyed workers two times--immediately after the organizational changes were announced and six months later. Of the 237 workers who took part in the study, 72 participated in both data collections.

The researchers discovered a strong association between employees' feelings of job security and their satisfaction with their supervisors, co-workers, pay, promotions and the work itself. In turn, they found, satisfaction with job security and other job components was consistently linked to workers' motivation to acquire safety knowledge and to comply with safety rules. Simply having knowledge about safety procedures, on the other hand, was not associated with compliance.

In addition, when safety compliance was low, workers reported experiencing more workplace accidents than when compliance was higher.

Probst and Brubaker acknowledge that the results don't conclusively indicate that job insecurity caused job dissatisfaction, or that dissatisfaction in turn caused workers to work less safely. Instead, they note, it could be that unsafe practices led to insecurity. However, the authors observe, their effects remained strong even when they took initial levels of job satisfaction, safety motivation and compliance with safety rules into account--a finding that bolsters the notion that job insecurity and dissatisfaction may indeed lead to poorer safety.

Probst speculates that dissatisfied employees may have felt that the employer was placing greater emphasis on meeting production quotas than on quality and safety, leading workers to dedicate more time and energy to working quickly and less to worrying about safety.

For employers, the results suggest "there is a way out of this problem," Probst says. "You can't control whether an organization is going to be downsized or reorganized, but you can control the message that you send to employees.

"Although employees are unlikely to respond favorably to what they perceive as lip service to safety," she observes, "they may do so if they believe they will be rewarded for safety compliance."

In follow-up laboratory research, Probst has examined how layoffs and job insecurity in a mock work setting affect people's compliance with safety rules--such as wearing safety masks and containing potentially dangerous paint fumes--as well as the quality and quantity of their work.

The results of that study, not yet published, support the observational study, Probst says: "When people are told that layoffs will occur, production numbers go up, but safety compliance and product quality suffer."