Safety Culture Transformation – The impact of training on explicit and implicit safety attitudes

On October 27, 2021, the CHAS Journal Club head from the lead author of the paper “Safety culture transformation—The impact of training on explicit and implicit safety attitudes”. The complete open access paper can be found on line at this link. The presentation file used by Nicki Marquadt, the presenting author, includes the graphics and statistical data from the paper.

Comments from the Table Read

On October 20, the journal club did a silent table read of an abridged portion of the article. This version of the article and their comments are below.

1. INTRODUCTION

Safety attitudes of workers and managers have a large impact on safety behavior and performance in many industries (Clarke, 2006, 2010; Ford & Tetrick, 2011, Ricci et al., 2018). They are an integral part of an organizational safety culture[a] and can therefore influence occupational health and safety, organizational reliability, and product safety (Burns et al., 2006; Guldenmund, 2000; Marquardt et al., 2012; Xu et al., 2014).

There are different forms of interventions for safety culture and safety attitude change, trainings are one of them. Safety trainings seek to emphasize the importance of safety behavior and promote appropriate, safety-oriented attitudes among employees[b][c][d][e][f][g][h][i] (Ricci et al., 2016, 2018).-*

However, research in the field of social cognition has shown that attitudes can be grouped in two different forms: On the one hand, there are conscious and reflective so-called explicit attitudes and on the other hand, there are mainly unconscious implicit attitudes (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Although there is an ongoing debate whether implicit attitudes are unconscious or partly unconscious (Berger, 2020; Gawronski et al., 2006), most researchers affirm the existence of these two structurally distinctive attitudes (Greenwald & Nosek, 2009). Traditionally, researchers have studied explicit attitudes of employees by using questionnaires [j](e.g., Cox & Cox, 1991; Rundmo, 2000). However, increasingly more researchers now focus on implicit attitudes that can be assessed with reaction time measures like the Implicit Association Test[k][l] (IAT; Greenwald et al., 1998; Ledesma et al., 2015; Marquardt, 2010; Rydell et al., 2006). These implicit attitudes could provide better insights into what influences safety behavior because they are considered to be tightly linked with key safety indicators. Unlike explicit attitudes, they are considered unalterable by social desirable responses (Burns et al., 2006; Ledesma et al., 2018; Marquardt et al., 2012; Xu et al., 2014). Nevertheless, no empirical research on whether implicit and explicit safety attitudes are affected by training could be found yet. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to investigate the effects that training may have on implicit and explicit safety attitudes. The results could be used to draw implications for the improvement of safety training and safety culture development.

1.1 Explicit and implicit attitudes in safety contexts

Explicit attitudes are described as reflected which means a person has conscious control over them[m] (Strack & Deutsch, 2004). In their associative–propositional evaluation (APE) model, Gawronski and Bodenhausen (2006) assume that explicit attitudes are based on propositional processes. These consist of evaluations derived from logical conclusions. In addition, explicit attitudes are often influenced by social desirability[n][o][p][q][r], if the topic is rather sensitive such as moral issues (Maass et al., 2012; Marquardt, 2010; Van de Mortel, 2008). This has also been observed in safety research where, in a study on helmet use, the explicit measure was associated with a Social Desirability Scale (Ledesma et al., 2018). Furthermore, it is said that explicit attitudes can be changed faster and more completely than implicit ones (Dovidio et al., 2001; Gawronski et al., 2017).

On the other hand, implicit attitudes are considered automatic, impulsive, and widely unconscious (Rydell et al., 2006). According to Greenwald and Banaji (1995, p. 5), they can be defined as “introspectively unidentified (or inaccurately identified) traces of past experience” that mediate overt responses. Hence, they use the term “implicit” as a broad label for a wide range of mental states and processes such as unaware, unconscious, intuitive, and automatic which are difficult to identify introspectively by a subject. Gawronski and Bodenhausen (2006) describe implicit attitudes as affective reactions that arise when stimuli activate automatic networks of associations. However, although Gawronski and Bodenhausen (2006) do not deny “that certain affective reactions are below the threshold of experiential awareness” (p. 696), they are critical towards the “potential unconsciousness of implicit attitudes” (p. 696). Therefore, they use the term “implicit” predominantly for the aspect of automaticity of affective reactions. Nevertheless, research has shown that people are not fully aware of the influence of implicit attitudes on their thinking and behavior even though they are not always completely unconscious (Berger, 2020; Chen & Bargh, 1997; De Houwer et al., 2007; Gawronski et al., 2006). Many authors say that implicit attitudes remain more or less stable over time and are hard to change (Charlesworth & Banaji, 2019; Dovidio et al., 2001; Wilson et al., 2000). In line with this, past studies in which attempts were made to change implicit attitudes often failed to achieve significant improvements (e.g., Marquardt, 2016; Vingilis et al., 2015).

1.3 Training and safety attitude change[s][t]

As mentioned in the introduction, the main question of this paper is to find out whether training can change implicit and explicit safety attitudes. Safety training can improve a person’s ability to correctly identify, assess, and respond to possible hazards in the work environment, which in turn can lead to better safety culture (Burke et al., 2006; Duffy, 2003; Wu et al., 2007). Besides individual safety training increasingly more industries such as aviation, medicine, and offshore oil and gas industry implement group trainings labeled as Crew Resource Management (CRM) training to address shared knowledge and task coordination in dynamic and dangerous work settings (Salas et al., 2006).

There are many different factors, which determine the effectiveness of safety trainings (Burke et al., 2006; Ricci et al., 2016) such as the training method (e.g., classroom lectures) and training duration (e.g., 8 h).

As can be seen in Figure 1, it can be stated that associative evaluations[u][v][w][x] (process) can be activated by different safety intervention stimuli such as training (input). These associative evaluations are the foundation for implicit safety attitudes (output) and propositional reasoning (processes), which in turn form the explicit safety attitudes (output). In addition, associative evaluations and propositional reasoning processes affect each other in many complex conscious and unconscious ways (Gawronski & Bodenhausen, 2006). However, change rates might be different. While the propositional processes adapt very quickly to the input (e.g., safety training), the associative evaluations might need longer periods of time for restructuring the associative network (Karpen et al., 2012). Therefore, divergences in the implicit and explicit measures resulting in inconsistent attitudes (output) can occur (McKenzie & Carrie, 2018).

1.4 Hypotheses and overview of the present studies

Based on the theories and findings introduced above, two main hypotheses are presented. Since previous research describes that explicit attitudes can be changed relatively quickly (Dovidio et al., 2001; Karpen et al., 2012), the first hypothesis states that:

  • H1: Explicit safety attitudes can be changed by training.
    Even though implicit attitudes are said to be more stable and harder to change (Dovidio et al.,
    2001; Gawronski et al., 2017; Wilson et al., 2000), changes by training in implicit attitudes can be expected too, due to changes in the associative evaluation processes (Lai et al., 2013) which affect the implicit attitudes (see EISAC model in Figure 1). Empirical research on the subject of implicit attitudinal change through training is scarce (Marquardt, 2016), however, it was shown that an influence on implicit attitudes is possible[y][z][aa] (Charlesworth & Banaji, 2019; Jackson et al., 2014; Lai et al., 2016; Rudman et al., 2001). Therefore, the second hypothesis states that:
  • H2: Implicit safety attitudes can be changed by training.

However, currently, there is a lack of empirical studies on implicit and explicit attitude change using longitudinal designs in different contexts (Lai et al., 2013). Also, in the field of safety training research, studies are needed to estimate training effectiveness over time (Burke et al., 2006). Therefore, to address the issues of time and context in safety attitude change by training, three studies with different training durations and measurement time frames in different safety-relevant contexts were conducted (see Table 1). In the first study, the short-term attitude change was measured 3 days prior and after a 2-h safety training in a chemical laboratory. In the second study, the medium-term attitude change was assessed 1 month prior and after a 2 days of CRM training for production workers. In the third study, the long-term attitude changes were measured within an advanced experimental design (12 months between pre- and post-measure) after a 12 weeks of safety ethics training in an occupational psychology student sample.[ab] To make this paper more succinct and to ease the comparability of used methods and reveled results, all three studies will be presented in parallel in the following method, results, and discussion sections. A summary table of all the studies can be seen in Table 1.

2. METHODS

Study 1

Fifteen participants (eight female and seven were male; mean age = 22.93 years; SD = 2.74) were recruited for the first study. The participants were from different countries with a focus on east and south Asia (e.g., India, Bangladesh, and China). They were enrolled in one class of an international environmental sciences study program with a major focus on practical experimental work in chemical and biological laboratories in Germany. Participation in regular safety training was mandatory for all participants to be admitted to working in these laboratories. To ensure safe working in the laboratories, the environmental sciences study program has traditionally small classes of 15–20 students. Hence, the sample represents the vast majority of one entire class of this study program. However, due to the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no opportunity to increase the sample size in a subsequent study. Consequently, the sample size was very small.

2.1.2 Study 2

A sample of 81 German assembly-line workers of an automotive manufacturer participated in Study 2. The workers were grouped into self-directed teams responsible for gearbox manufacturing. Hence, human error during the production process could threaten the health and safety of the affected workers and also the product safety of the gearbox which in turn affects the health and safety of prospective consumers. The gearbox production unit encompassed roughly 85 workers. Thus, the sample represents the vast majority of the production unit’s workforce. Due to the precondition of the evaluation being anonymous, as requested by the firm’s work council, personal data such as age, sex, and qualification could not be collected.

2.1.3 Study 3

In Study 3, complete data sets of 134 German participants (mean age = 24.14; SD = 5.49; 92 female, 42 male) could be collected. All participants were enrolled in Occupational Psychology and International Business study programs with a special focus on managerial decision making under uncertainty and risks. The sample represents the vast majority of two classes of this study program since one class typically includes roughly 60–70 students. Furthermore, 43 of these students also had a few years of work experience (mean = 4.31; SD = 4.07).

4. DISCUSSION

4.1 Discussion of results

The overall research objective of this paper was to find out about the possibility of explicit and implicit safety attitude changes by training. Therefore, two hypotheses were created. H1 stated that explicit safety attitudes can be changed by training. H2 stated that implicit safety attitudes can be changed by training. Based on the results of Studies 1–3, it can be concluded that explicit safety attitudes can be changed by safety training. In respect of effect sizes, significant small effects (Study 2), medium effects (Study 1), and even large effects (Study 3) were observed. Consequently, the first hypothesis (H1) was supported by all three studies. Nevertheless, compared to the meta-analytic results by Ricci et al. (2016) who obtained very large effect sizes, the effects of training on the explicit safety attitudes were lower in the present studies. In contrast, none of the three studies revealed significant changes in the implicit safety attitudes after the training. Even though there were positive changes in the post-measures, the effect sizes were marginal and nonsignificant. Accordingly, the second hypothesis (H2) was not confirmed in any of these three studies. In addition, it seems that the duration of safety training (e.g., 2 h, 2 days, or even 12 weeks) has no effect on the implicit attitudes[ac][ad][ae][af][ag][ah]. However, the effect sizes of short-term and medium-term training of Studies 1 and 2 were larger than those obtained in the study by Lai et al. (2016), whose effect sizes were close to zero after the follow-up measure 2–4 days after the intervention.

The results obtained in these studies differ with regard to effect size. This can partly be explained by the characteristics of the sample. For instance, in Studies 1 and 3, the participants of the training, as well as the control groups (Study 3 only), were students from occupational psychology and environmental sciences degree programs. Therefore, all students—even those of the control groups—are familiar with concepts of health and safety issues, sustainability, and prosocial behavior. Consequently, the degree programs could have had an impact on the implicit sensitization of the students which might have caused high values in implicit safety attitudes even in the control groups. The relatively high IAT-effects in all four groups prior and after the training are therefore an indication of a ceiling effect in the third study (see Table 3). This is line with the few empirical results gained by previous research in the field of implicit and explicit attitude change by training (Jackson et al., 2014; Marquardt, 2016). Specifically, Jackson et al. (2014) have also found a ceiling effect in the favorable implicit attitudes towards women in STEM of female participants, who showed no significant change in implicit attitudes after a diversity training.[ai][aj][ak]

Finally, it seems that the implicit attitudes were mainly unaffected by the training. The IAT data have shown no significant impact in any group comparison or pre- and post-measure comparison. To conclude, based on the current results it can be assumed that when there is a training effect, then it manifests itself in the explicit and not the implicit safety attitudes. One explanation might be that implicit safety attitudes are more stable unconscious dispositions which cannot be easily changed like explicit ones (Charlesworth & Banaji, 2019; Dovidio et al., 2001; Wilson et al., 2000). In respect of the EISAC model (see Section 1.3), unconscious associative evaluations might be activated by safety training, but not sustainably changed. A true implicit safety attitude change would refer to a shift in associative evaluations that persist across multiple safety contexts and over longer periods of time (Lai et al., 2013).[al][am]

5. PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS AND CONCLUSION

What do the current empirical results mean for safety culture and training development? Based on the assumption that the implicit attitudes are harder to change (Gawronski et al., 2017) and thus may require active engagement via the central route of conviction (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986), this could be an explanation why there was no change in Study 1. This assumption is supported by the meta-analysis of Burke et al. (2006), who found large effect sizes for highly engaging training methods (e.g., behavior modeling, feedback, safety dialog) in general, and by the meta-analysis of Ricci et al. (2016) who obtained large effect sizes on attitudes in particular. However, the more engaging training methods such as interactive tutorials, case analyses, cooperative learning phases, role plays, and debriefs (structured group discussions)—which have proved strong meta-analytic effects (Ricci et al., 2016)—used in Studies 2 (CRM training) and 3 (Safety ethics training) did have a significant impact on the explicit but not implicit attitude change[an][ao]. In addition, it seems that more intense training with longer duration (e.g., such as 12 weeks in Study 3) has again no effect on the implicit attitude change. Therefore, maybe other approaches [ap][aq]can be more promising.

To sum up, even though the outlined conclusions are tentative, it could be very useful in the future to design realistic and affect-inducing training simulations via emergency simulators or virtual reality approaches[ar][as][at][au][av] [aw][ax][ay][az][ba](Sacks et al., 2013; Seymour et al., 2002) for all highly hazardous industries. If these simulations are accompanied by highly engaging behavioral (e.g., behavioral modeling; Burke et al., 2006, 2011), social (e.g., debriefs/structured group discussions; Ricci et al., 2016), and cognitive (e.g., implementation intentions; Lai et al., 2016) training methods, then they might facilitate a positive explicit and even implicit safety attitude change and finally a sustainable safety culture transformation.

[a]A theoretical question that occurs to me when reading this is:

Is “an organizational safety culture” the sum of the safety attitudes of workers and management or is there a synergy among these attitudes that creates a non-linear feedback effect?

[b]I would not have thought of this as the purpose of discreet trainings. I would have thought that the purpose of trainings is to teach the skills necessary to do a job safely.

[c]I agree. Safety Trainings are about acquiring skills to operate safely in a specific process…the collective (Total Environment) affects safety behavior.

[d]I think this could go back to the point below about fostering the environment – safety trainings communicating that safety is a part of the culture here.

[e]Safety professionals (myself included) have historically misused the term “training” to refer to what are really presentations.

[f]Agreed. I always say something that happens in a lecture hall with my butt in a chair is probably not a “training.” While I see the point made above, many places have “trainings” simply because they are legally required to have them. It says little to nothing about the safety culture of the whole environment.

[g]Maybe they go more into the actual training types used in the manuscript, but we typically start in a lecture hall and then move into the labs for our trainings, so I would still classify what we have as a training, but I can see what you mean about a training being more like a presentation in some cases.

[h]This is something I struggle with…but I’m trying to refer to the lecture style component as a safety presentation and the actual working with spill kits as a safety training.  It has been well-received!

[i]This is a core question and has been an ongoing struggle ever since I started EHS training in an education-oriented environment.

As a result, over time I have moved my educational objectives from content based (e.g. what is an MSDS?) to awareness based (what steps should you take when you have a safety question). However, the EHS community is sloppy when talking about training and education, which are distinct activities.

[j]Looks like these would be used for more factual items such as evaluating what the researcher did, not how/why they did it

[k]I’m skeptical that IATs are predictive of real-world behavior in all, or even most, circumstances. I’d be more interested in an extension of this work that looks at whether training (or “training”) changes revealed preferences based on field observations.

[l]Yes – much more difficult to do but also much more relevant. I would be more interested in seeing if decision-making behavior changes under certain circumstances. This would tell you if training was effective or not.

[m]This is a little confusing to me but sounds like language that makes sense in another context.

[n]What are the safety-related social desirabilities of chemistry grad students?

[o]I would think these would be tied to not wanting to “get in trouble.”

[p]Also, likely linked to being wrong about something chemistry-related.

[q]What about the opposite? Not wear PPE to be cool?

[r]In my grad student days, I was primarily learning how to “fake it until I make it”. This often led to the imposter syndrome being socially desirable. This probably arose from the ongoing awareness of grading and other judgement systems that the academic environment relies on

[s]Were study participants aware or were the studies conducted blind? If I am an employee and I know my progress will be measured, I may behave differently than if I had not known.

[t]This points back to last week’s article.

[u]What are some other ways to activate our associative evaluations?

[v]I would think it would include things like witnessing your lab mates follow safety guidance, having your PI explicitly ask you about risk assessment on your experiments, having safety issues remedied quickly by your facility. Basically, the norms you would associate with your workplace.

[w]Right, I just wonder if there’d be another way besides the training (input) to produce the intended change in the associative evaluation process we go through to form an implicit attitude. We definitely have interactions on a daily basis which can influence that, but is there some other way to tell our subconscious mind something is important.

[x]In the days before social media, we used social marketing campaigns that were observably successful, but they relied on a core of career lab techs who supported a rotating cast of medical researchers. The lab techs were quite concerned about both their own safety and the quality of their science as a result of the 3 to 6 month rotation of the MD/PhD researchers.

The social marketing campaigns included 1) word of mouth, 2) supporting graphical materials and 3) ongoing EHS presence in labs to be the bad guys on behalf of the career lab techs

[y]This reminds me of leading vs lagging indicators for cultural change

[z]This also makes me think of the arguments around “get the hands to do the right things and the attitudes will follow” which is along the lines of what Geller describes.

[aa]That’s a great comparison. Emphasizes the importance of embedding it throughout the curriculum to be taught over long periods of time

[ab]A possible confounding variable here would have to do with how much that training was reinforced between the training and the survey period. 12 months out (or even 3 months out) a person may not even remember what was said or done in that specific training, so their attitudes are likely to be influenced by what has been happening in the mean time.

[ac]I don’t find this surprising. I would imagine that what was happening in the mean time (outside of the training) would have a larger impact on implicit attitudes.

[ad]I was really hoping to see a comparison using the same attitude time frame for the 3 different training durations. Like a short-term, medium, and long-term evaluation of the attitudes for all 3 training durations, but maybe this isn’t how things are done in these kinds of studies.

[ae]This seems to be the trouble with many of the behavioral sciences papers I read, where you can study what is available not something that lines up with your hypothesis

[af]I really would probably have been more interested in the long-term evaluation for the medium training duration personally to see their attitude over a longer period of time, for example.

[ag]I think this is incredibly hard to get right though. An individual training is rarely impactful enough for people to remember it. And lots of stuff happens in between when you take the training and when you are “measured” that could also impact your safety attitudes. If the training you just went through isn’t enforced by anyone anywhere, what value did it really have? Alternatively, if people already do things the right way, then the training may have just helped you learn how to do everything right – but was it the training or the environment that led to positive implicit safety attitudes? Very difficult to tease apart in reality.

[ah]Yeah, maybe have training follow-ups or an assessment of some sorts to determine if information was retained to kind of evaluate the impact the training had on other aspects as well as the attitudes.

[ai]What effect does this conclusion have on JEDI or DEI training?

[aj]I also found this point to be very interesting. I wonder if this paper discussed explicit attitudes. I’m not sure what explicit vs implicit attitudes would mean in a DEI context because they seem more interrelated (unconscious bias, etc.)

[ak]I am also curious how Implicit Attitude compares to Unconscious Bias.

[al]i.e. Integrated across the curriculum over time?

[am]One challenge I see here is the competing definitions of “safety”. There are chemical safety, personal security, community safety,  social safety all competing for part of the safety education pie. I think this is why many people’s eyes glaze over when safety training is brought up or presented

[an]The authors mention that social desirability is one reason explicit and implicit attitudes can diverge, but is it the only reason, or even the primary reason? I’m somehwat interested in the degree to which that played a role here (though I’m also still not entirely sure how much I care whether someone is a “true believer” when it comes to safety or just says/does all the right things because they know it’s expected of them).

[ao]This is a good point.

[ap]I am curious to learn more about these approaches.

[aq]I believe the author discusses more thoroughly in the full paper

[ar]Would these trainings only be for emergencies or all trainings? I feel that a lot of times we are told what emergencies might pop up and how you would handle them but never see them in action. This reminds me of a thought I had about making a lab safety-related video game that you could “fail” on handling an emergency situation in lab but you wouldn’t have the direct consequences in the real world.

[as]Love that idea, it makes sense that you would remember it better if you got to walk through the actual process. I wonder what the effect of engagement would be on implicit and explicit attitudes.

[at]Absolutely – I think valuable learning moments come from doing the action and it honestly would be safer to learn by making mistakes in a virtual environment when it comes to our kind of safety. The idea reminds me of the  tennis video games I used to play when I was younger and they helped me learn how to keep score in tennis. Now screen time would be a concern, but something like this could be looked at in some capacity.

[au]This idea is central to trying to bring VR into training. Obviously, you can’t actually have someone spill chemical all over themselves, etc – but VR makes it so you virtually could. And there are papers suggesting that the brain “reads” things happening in the VR world as if they really happened. Although one has to be careful with this because that also opens up the possibility that you could actually traumatize someone in the VR world.

[av]I know I was traumatized just jumping into a VR game where you fell through hoops (10/10 don’t recommend falling-based VR games), but maybe less of a VR game and more of like a cartoon character that they can customize so they see the impact exposure to different chemicals could have but they don’t have that traumatic experience of being burned themselves,for example.

[aw]In limited time and/or limited funding situations, how can academia utilize these training methodologies? Any creative solutions?

[ax]I’m also really surprised that the conclusion is to focus on training for the worker. I would think that changing attitudes (explicit and implicit) would have more to do with the environment that one works in than it does on a specific training.

[ay]I agree on this. I think the environment one finds themselves plays a part in shaping one’s attitudes and behaviors.

[az]AGREED

[ba]100% with the emphasis on the environment rather than the training

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