Why emotional intelligence could be health and safety’s most underrated tool

An employee’s state of mind is directly connected to their likelihood of having an accident, according to a recent study into the oil and gas industry. So how can managers use this insight to reduce incidents?

Emotional awareness affects safety compliance, says research. Copyright sarawut khawngoen/iStock.
In brief: 
  • Employee surveys in the oil and gas sector indicate emotional intelligence is a key factor when it comes to accidents and compliance
  • People with higher levels of emotional control adhere to rules and perform better under pressure, while those with low levels represent greater incident risk  
  • Oil and gas companies could save lives and costs by incorporating social aspects into health and safety training and drills. 
In detail: 

Emotional intelligence plays a major role in health and safety compliance and the rate of accidents in the oil and gas sector, according to a recent study. 

The paper, titled ‘Emotional intelligence as a conduit for improved occupational health safety environment in the oil and gas sector’, revealed how employees’ mental states not only influence risk potential, but that by reinforcing positive social interactions, firms can reduce or prevent incidents from occurring. 

The research focused on the oil and gas industry in Ghana however it is relevant to heavy industries at large complex and dangerous machinery require decision-making under pressure.

It determined that emotional intelligence (EI) though often overlooked yet has a “significant impact” on health and safety compliance, with a direct correlation to the frequency and severity of workplace accidents.

First, the team identified the role of EI in occupational health and safety management practices (OHSMP) and its influence on safety performance and workplace accidents. It found that while OHSMPs are crucial, they are not the sole determinants of safety performance and in fact EI is a significant predictor of safety outcomes. 

Workers categorised as having a high EI – those who could appraise and manage their own emotions and those of others – were less likely to be involved in accidents. They also tended to adhere more closely to safety protocols, even when under the stress of high-production demands. Those adept in EI are better equipped to navigate the emotional demands of their roles, leading to fewer cognitive failures and a lower incidence of accidents.

Conversely, those categorised as having a lower EI were less likely to follow guidance, and tended to behave erratically when under pressure. Such highly-emotional states are contagious and could lead to panic, mistakes and therefore accidents. 

Applying emotional intelligence in H&S training 

The research suggested that EI could act as a mediator between safety management systems and safety performance. In essence, it can be used to amplify or buffer the effectiveness of safety practices.

According to OSHA, a single fatality at work can cost up to $910,000, while a prevented accident that could cause injury could cost an organisation up to $28,000.

In light of this, there is a financial as well as ethical case for a paradigm shift in how industries approach safety training. 

Beyond the technical aspects, there is a pressing need to incorporate emotional intelligence development into regular safety and human resource management programs. By enhancing workers' emotional competencies, companies can foster a safer work environment, reduce the likelihood of accidents, and ultimately save on the significant costs associated with workplace injuries.

This study underscores the importance of nurturing the emotional aspect of workers' skill sets to complement their physical and technical proficiencies. In high-stakes environments, where every second and every decision can mean the difference between safety and disaster, emotional intelligence could well be the most critical gear in a worker's toolkit.

The study surveyed 699 workers from the three major government-owned oil and gas organisations in Ghana to capture all five phases of oil and gas exploration and production.

It was carried out by Nkrumah Nana Kwame Edmund at the School of Management and Safety Engineering; and Liu Suxia, Arielle Doris Tetgoum Kachie and Larnyo Ebenezer at the School of Management, all at Jiangsu University in China.

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