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Safety Science 46 (2008) 959–971

Occupational accident experience: Association with

workers’ accident explanation and definition
Cláudia Niza a,*, Sı́lvia Silva b, Maria Luı́sa Lima b
London School of Economics (LSE), Operational Research Department, Portugal Street, London, UK
Centro de Investigacßão e Intervencßão Social (CIS)/Instituto Superior de Ciências do Trabalho e da Empresa (ISCTE),
Departamento de Psicologia Social e Organizacional, Av. Forcßas Armadas, Ed. ISCTE, 1649-026 Lisboa, Portugal


Problem: The experience of an occupational accident, as a harmful and unexpected event, may elicit a process of con-
struction of meaning. However, research has provided inconsistent results regarding to the role of such an experience in
posterior sense-making. This article aims at understanding the association of an occupational accident experience with the
explanation and definition given by workers for such events.
Method: Fifty-six semi-structured interviews were conducted with workers from several sectors. This data was subject
to content analysis and HOMALS (Multiple Correspondence Analysis).
Results: An accident experience was associated with defensive explanations (focused on causes external to workers) and
defensive definitions (highlighting the sudden nature of accidents and organizational weaknesses).
Discussion: The study of the construction of meaning about accidents and its variability is highly relevant for under-
standing posterior preventive behavior and the accuracy in the report of future occupational accidents.
Impact on industry: Organizations should be aware of discrepancies in conceptions and interpretations among employ-
ees about occupational accidents when planning prevention programs or improvement of accident data registration.
Ó 2007 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Keywords: Occupational accident; Accident experience; Lay explanation; Definition; Prevention

1. Problem

Occupational accidents represent a serious problem to society, with statistical data alerting to the high fre-
quency and severity of these events every year (e.g., ILO, 2002). Research on occupational accidents has
exposed the negative impact these hazards have on their victims, families and co-workers (e.g., Dembe,
2004), with both consequences for cognition and behavior (see Goncßalves et al., 2008).
The role of a personal accident experience in the way individuals think about these hazardous events is not
well-established in literature. On one hand, some studies have shown that an accident experience has an

Corresponding author. Tel.: +351 217903079; fax: +351 217903962.
E-mail addresses: (C. Niza), (S. Silva), (M.L. Lima).

0925-7535/$ - see front matter Ó 2007 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

960 C. Niza et al. / Safety Science 46 (2008) 959–971

important impact on individuals’ subsequent sense-making. Shaver (1970), based on the work of Walster
(1966), developed the defensive attribution hypothesis which claimed that the victims of accidents tended to
explain the event in a way that personal responsibility is minimized. Further supporting results (e.g., Salminen,
1992) showed that, when explaining an accident, workers tended to focus on the circumstances of the accident,
whereas supervisors tended to blame the employees as the source of the deviation from the normal work rou-
tine. This attribution difference is the most replicated result regarding the impact of a personal accident expe-
rience on sense-making (e.g., Kouabenan, 2000c, 2001b). Gyekye and Salminen (2006) demonstrated that this
tendency is also shown by coworkers who empathize with the victim of the accident. The authors identified
three categories of coworkers in their relation to the accident (situationally relevant, personally relevant
and non-relevant) and concluded that witnesses who had some perception of personal or situational similarity
with the victim attribute less responsibility to the hazarded worker.
However, other empirical findings failed to find an association between accident occurrence and reasoning.
Gyekye (2003) in a study about the attribution of causes for occupational accidents in both dangerous (min-
ers) and non-dangerous (textile employees) work environments, concluded that victims perceived workers’
personal characteristics to be primarily responsible for accident occurrences. On the other hand, Kouabenan
(1998) in a study about the beliefs and perceptions of risk related to accidents concluded that ‘‘the true effect of
accident experience (. . .) remains to be established” (p. 251) as he found no connection between a prior acci-
dent history and specific beliefs related to accidents. Moreover, Girasek (1999) explored the meaning of the
word accident with the purpose of understanding the lay notions of preventability and predictability related
to accidents [e.g., when you hear the work accident, do you usually think that what happened could have been
predicted (prevented)?]. Within the socio-demographic information collected from participants (e.g., sex, age),
the author included data from prior accident experience but concluded that previous victims did not differ sig-
nificantly from non-victims in the interpretations given to the word accident.
Understanding the construction of meaning individuals make of their experience can be related to the
study of lay epistemology or the process of knowledge acquisition and organization of laypeople (Effler,
1984). In the case of hazardous events, the attribution of causes is the usual framework (Silvester and Chap-
man, 1997). However, causal attribution is included in a larger scheme of sense-making of the world and the
search of causes to events is just one of the forms through which individuals understand their social envi-
ronment (Pernanen, 1993). As exposed by Bar-Tal and Kruglanski (1988), the theory of lay epistemology
has two distinct but interrelated categories: on one hand, identification and classification of concepts, and
on the other hand, the connection between concepts, where the search of causality is included. Following
this perspective, the definition of concepts or searching for ‘‘what is it” and not just ‘‘why is it” is another
important way of constructing meaning (e.g., Condit et al., 2004). Moreover, as these two categories are
logically related (Bar-Tal and Kruglanski, 1988), it is plausible to think that these two processes may be con-
nected in a way that the causes individuals give to explain an action or event may be coupled with the def-
inition they provide for it.
We intend to clarify this relationship, focusing on the analysis of the impact of a worker’s accident expe-
rience on both the causal attributions and definitions of occupational accidents.

1.1. Causal attribution for occupational accidents

Attribution activity is the process of sense-making whereby the individuals attempt to identify the causes
that are present in their daily lives (Deschamps and Clémence, 2000) either about feelings, behaviors or events
(e.g., Kelley and Michela, 1980).
The foremost findings in attribution literature are the actor/observer distinction (Jones and Nisbett, 1971)
and the fundamental attribution error (Ross, 1977). Jones and Nisbett (1971) exposed the attribution differ-
ences between actors and observers to an event, and presented the explanation that distinct personal involve-
ment and access to information tended to make actors more focused on external causes (associated with the
context of the situation) and observers on internal causes (connected to the individuals). Regarding the other
important finding, Ross (1977) defined what was called the fundamental attribution error, characterised by the
fact that people generally tend to attribute the causes of events to the individuals involved in them, neglecting
the importance of situational factors.
C. Niza et al. / Safety Science 46 (2008) 959–971 961

This causal attribution framework has been applied to the study of hazardous events in the workplace,
namely burnout (Moore, 2000), alcohol-related accidents (Pernanen, 1993) or occupational accident (e.g.
Melià et al., 2001) because these kind of rare or overwhelming events at work make employees stop and
ask why (Silvester and Chapman, 1997). Particularly regarding occupational accidents, the causal search refers
to the process of determining why an accident has occurred. The outcome of this search is the causal attribu-
tion: the individual’s explanation of what caused the accident.
Despite the consistency in the aforementioned attribution differences between victims and observers of acci-
dents, Kouabenan (1999, 2001a) mentioned the existence of other factors that could influence the lay expla-
nations of accidents. On one hand, age was shown to have an influence in employees’ explanations to
occupational accidents (e.g., Melià et al., 2001), being older workers more likely to attribute the event to exter-
nal factors and younger workers to refer internal attributions. On the other hand, Gherardi et al. (1998)
referred that a higher educational level was associated with internal attributions, by contrast with external
attributions given mainly by low literate individuals. Kouabenan et al. (2001) showed that the sex and the hier-
archical level of individuals played a significant role in the attributions for an accident. These authors con-
cluded that subjects with a high hierarchical position made more attributions blaming the victim than did
subjects in a subordinate level. Moreover, sex interacted with the hierarchical position in a way that male
supervisors made more internal attributions but there were no differences among women of different levels.
At an organizational level of analysis, Hofman and Stetzer (1998) referred safety climate as a moderator of
the common defensive attribution pattern found in victims. Safety climate as the perceptions of events, prac-
tices and behaviors related to safety in the organization (Silva et al., 2004) was shown to attenuate the ten-
dency for defensive attributions, resulting that individuals working in a positive safety climate tended to
make more internal attributions than employees in a negative safety climate organization. Regarding organi-
zational culture, research has shown that different communities of practices and shared knowledge tend to give
different explanations to occupational accidents. In a study on the construction sector, Gherardi et al. (1998)
concluded that engineers explained accidents as abnormal events resulting from the disrespect of safety rules,
while foremen justified the occurrence of accidents as being an expected result of the dangerousness of the
work environment. Lastly, Kouabenan (2001) focused on the impact of national cultures on lay explanations,
concluding that western individualistic societies present more internal attributions to accidents, while more
collectivist societies tend to offer more explanations related to external factors.
The existence of several variables that have been shown to play a role in the attribution process suggests that
the attribution of specific causes to accidents may vary according to personal characteristics, organizational
context or cultural variables. It is a dynamic and purposive process that provides individuals with an internal
sense of security and order. This subject is of extreme importance because, regardless of the actual causes of
particular accidents, it is the explanation given by individuals that determine their emotional, cognitive and
behavioral responses to the accident (Woodcook, 1995). The application of attribution theory to occupational
accidents is highly relevant because identifying the causes of accidents is a way of structuring the situation and
relating it to one’s motivations and needs (Pernanen, 1993) and a fundamental prerequisite for preventive
action (e.g., Kouabenan, 1998). There are several studies that acknowledge the importance of understanding
the attribution of causes to events (e.g., Butchart et al., 2000; Kouabenan, 2000a) for prevention. Individuals
adjust their future behavior to the perceived causes of accidents and the belief of preventability is central to
prevention actions (Poole, 1987). Moreover, if naı̈ve causal explanations for accidents are communicated, acci-
dents countermeasures could be better understood and more easily accepted because they would integrate the
cognitive and emotional functioning of those directly involved in their execution (Kouabenan, 2000b).

1.2. Definition of occupational accident

From the perspective of international organisms, ILO (2002), in its worldwide report on Recording and
Notification of Occupational Accidents and Diseases, concluded that there was a great variety of occupational
accidents definitions among countries, ranging from a simple reference in legislation to accidents occurring in
the workplace (e.g. Botswana, UK) to countries with a more precise definition (e.g. USA). Similarly, Eurostat
in its Questionnaire on National Declaration Systems of Accidents at Work, identified variability in accident
definition as a factor that could compromise the comparability of data on national occupational accidents.
962 C. Niza et al. / Safety Science 46 (2008) 959–971

From an academic perspective, there are very few studies that have analysed the importance of occupa-
tional accidents definition. In a study on hospital service workers, Weddle (1996) found that of all workers
recalling having been injured in the previous year, about 40% did not report one or more injuries. For most
of these cases, subjects said that they did not consider that particular harmful event to be an occupational acci-
dent. On the other hand, Conroy and Sciortino (1997) evaluated whether different definitions used for occu-
pational deaths would identify different cases and proposed a definition for occupational injury. According to
them, injury is consensually defined by researchers as ‘‘tissue or body damage or loss of function of a body
part” (p. 274) but the problem is the occupational prefix as it ‘‘is more difficult to define and there is no stan-
dard definition used consistently by researchers. Definitions vary widely and depend upon the data source and
reason for identifying cases of occupational injuries” (p. 274). These authors provided evidence suggesting that
counts of occupational injury fatalities based on surveillance systems using restricted definitions differ from
systems using broader definitions for occupational injury death. In a study by Saldaña et al. (2003) there were
examined the differences and similarities between several possible ways to define occupational accidents. The
authors mentioned that there exist two different views on what constitutes an occupational accident: the first
integrates all events, with or without injuries, whereas in the second, occupational accidents are only those that
result in injury consequences (naming the events that do not result in injuries as incidents). These authors
defended the use of a wide definition that should cover all events with potential to cause damages (personal
or organisational) as a more valid analysis framework than a narrow definition of occupational accidents. As
suggested by Pernanen (1993), the lack of interest or awareness about the importance of the definition of the
concept accident (reflected in the scarce studies on this subject) may be due to the fact that most researchers
think of occupational accident as a well-defined expression, with an equally shared meaning and find no need
for further clarification. However, a study on the definitions presented in occupational health and safety lit-
erature (Niza et al., 2006) showed that there are a number of different definitions in use, depending on the
authors’ scientific domain and nationality. Moreover, there are noteworthy examples from studies about
the public sense-making (e.g., Condit et al., 2004; Chapman et al., 2003) that acknowledge the importance
of studying the meaning of concepts to individuals because there is evidence of a significant variety of inter-
pretations for the same words.
These discrepancies in the definition and interpretation of what is an occupational accident may obstruct an
effective communication between workers, employers and governmental organizations. The definition used by
institutional entities may not be shared by organizations, and organizations may have an official definition
that is very different from what its employees think an occupational accident is. There is a potential space
for concept misunderstanding that may create gaps between the number of accidents that occur and the num-
ber present in official statistics.

1.3. Aim of the study

Insofar, research has shown that different people may perceive and interpret the same accident in different
ways and that an accident experience has some impact on posterior sense-making. Although there is a consis-
tent amount of evidence about the type of explanations victims of accidents give, it is not clear the impact this
experience has on the definition of the event and how these two sense-making processes may be connected. As
shown in literature (e.g., Bar-Tal & Kruglanski, 1988) the combined study of these subjects is fundamental to
understand the overall lay reasoning about occupational accidents.
Given these considerations, in the present study we aim at understanding the association of a personal
occupational accident experience with the causal attributions and definitions given by workers.

2. Method

2.1. Sample

The sample was composed by 56 subjects (29 women and 27 men), with ages ranging from 20 to 64 years
old (average 36.98). The participants worked in the services (63.6% of which 17.9% in health and 8.9% in edu-
cation) or industry (35.7% of which 7.1% in construction) sectors. Seniority in the organizations had a min-
C. Niza et al. / Safety Science 46 (2008) 959–971 963

imum of 6 months and a maximum of 32 years, with an average of about 8 years. Regarding literacy, about
15% of the subjects were at the sixth grade level and about 18% had completed the ninth grade. More than half
of the subjects (57.1%) completed the 12th grade and a quarter of the sample was at the university level.
Almost all subjects were employed at the time of the interview (85.7%) and about half had some experience
in the safety area (e.g., training in workplace safety procedures). In the past 3 years, a third of all participants
had an occupational accident (33.9%) and about 20% of all subjects had experienced sick leaves as a conse-
quence of occupational accidents. Almost half of the subjects confirmed a personal occupational accident
experience at some point in their lives and about two thirds reported having had incidents (e.g., near misses
or small harmless accidents) in the company they were working at the time of the data collection.

2.2. Data collection

This study was based on a convenience sample of interviews performed by Psychology students. The super-
visors gave training to the students in the interview protocol, followed all data collection during individual
tutorial sessions (three for each interviewer) and at the end the quality of their work were assessed. Each stu-
dent made a previous contact with the participants in order to book the future appointment. The majority of
the interviews were carried out outside the participants’ organization (80%) and the remaining in a workplace
The interview schedule was developed by the authors of this paper. The interviews performed were semi-
structured, including questions related to the participants’ employment situation, lay conceptions about occu-
pational accidents and participants’ personal experience of hazardous events. The questions analyzed for this
study were questions: ‘‘In your opinion, what is an occupational accident?” and” In your opinion, what are the
causes for occupational accidents?” The first question was related to the definition of occupational accidents
and the second was about the causes of occupational accidents.
All interviews were recorded and subjected to fully transcription.

2.3. Data analysis

A content analysis (with development of a system of categories) and a Homals (multiple correspondence
analysis) were the procedures used to analyze the data.
The content analysis used to study the causal attributions for occupational accidents was adapted from
Gyekye (2003, p. 537). This author created a questionnaire divided into external and internal causal factors
that influenced or contributed to occupational accidents, both presenting 15 subcategories to which the sub-
jects answered in a five point scale. In our study, these subcategories were not rated in a scale but marked as
absent/present in the content analysis.
Although using the same strucure, there were only included the subcategories from Gyekye (2003) that were
mentioned by the subjects. Ten external and eight internal subcategories were removed from the analysis.
Regarding external attributions, the subcategories unsafe equipment, inadequate training, pressure from man-
agement and poor housekeeping were kept. It was necessary to add three external subcategories (mentioned by
our subjects and not present at the original study): lack of inspection, lack of supervision and bad luck/des-
tiny. Concerning the internal related subcategories, there were included lack of skill, attention lapse, miscon-
duct, inexperience, carelessness, bad day and fatigue. In this case, it was not necessary to include further sub-
categories related to internal factors.
This study introduced a new variable in the analysis, designated by primary attribution and defined as the
first type of attribution mentioned by the subjects. Subjects commonly refer several factors to explain occu-
pational accidents, mentioning both internal and external causes. This variable was related to the first causal
factor referred by the subjects, conceptualised as their more immediate explanation.
For a summary of the system developed and category dictionary see Table 1.
The content analysis performed on the question about the definition of occupational accidents was devel-
oped in Niza et al. (2006), in a study about the definitions and operationalizations of work-related accidents
used in empirical studies for a 10-year period (1995–2005). This system of categories is structured around
four main categories: (1) occupational accident context, (2) occupational accident sudden characteristic,
964 C. Niza et al. / Safety Science 46 (2008) 959–971

Table 1
Dictionary and frequencies related to causal attribution categories (adapted from Gyekye, 2003)
Categories Subcategories Dictionary Absolute frequency Relative frequency
Primary attribution Internal Causes associated with the worker 33 58.9
External Causes associated with the context 18 32.1
Internal attribution Lack skill Deficient knowledge about task 2 3.6
Attention lapse Incorrect course of action selected 15 26.8
Misconduct Failure to use protective equipment 29 51.8
Inexperience Lack of adequate ability 4 7.1
Carelessness Exceeded prescribed limits 17 30.4
Bad day Unusual misbehavior 2 3.6
Fatigue Reduced alertness 1 1.8
Total 70
External attribution Lack inspection No external safety assessment 2 3.6
Lack supervision No management control 6 10.7
Bad luck/destiny Inevitability of accidents 6 10.7
Unsafe equipment Faulty utensils and tools 16 28.6
Inadequate training Deficient preparation and guidance 6 10.7
Pressure Excessive work pace 1 1.8
Poor housekeeping Lack of workplace tidiness 17 30.4
Total 54

(3) occupational accident causes and (4) occupational accident consequences. The first category was related to
what was happening at the time or where the accident occurred, and was divided in to three subcategories: (1a)
at the workplace, (1b) during the performance of a task, and (1c) commuting to or from work. The second
category was connected to the sudden or unexpected characteristic of the accident event. The third category
was related to the causes of the occupational accident and was divided into three subcategories: (3a) lack of
safe equipment, (3b) lack of working conditions, and (3c) lack of safety training. The last category was about
the consequences of the accident and was splat into (3a) physical consequences and (3b) psychological
This data analysis procedure was validated through an inter-judge consensus, in which two independent
judges classified a random sample of answers according to the developed categories. There was an overall
inter-judge consensus of 85%, suggesting the suitability of the system produced.
In the last step, a Homals analysis was performed including the subcategories developed in the content
analysis related to causal attributions and definitions, in addition to socio-demographic and accident experi-
ence variables. Homals is a Multiple Correspondence method for qualitative variables that finds patterns of
association (proximity) in the data. This procedure organizes the information along two orthogonal dimen-
sions, and the intersection of these two dimensions provides a combined pattern in four quadrants of aggre-
gated data.

3. Results

3.1. Content analysis

The frequencies for each subcategory related to causal attribution are shown in Table 1.
The majority of the primary attributions made by the subjects were internal (33), and overall, the explana-
tions mentioned were more internal (70) than external factors (54). This first result supports the fundamental
attribution error previously mentioned. Within the internal factors, the causes more frequently referred were
misconduct (51.8%), carelessness (30.4%) and attention lapse (26.8%), whereas the more frequent external fac-
tors pointed were poor housekeeping (30.4%) and unsafe equipment (28.6%). Taking all factors together, the
results showed that there were five main causes referred by the subjects, of which three were internal and
two external: misconduct (I), carelessness (I) and poor house keeping (E), unsafe equipment (E) and attention
lapse (I).
C. Niza et al. / Safety Science 46 (2008) 959–971 965

Table 2
Frequencies related to definition categories
Categories Subcategories Absolute frequency Relative frequency
Context 29 51.8
Workplace 16 28.6
Task 21 37.5
Commuting 4 7.1
Sudden characteristic 6 10.7
Causes 16 28.6
Lack of safe equipment 12 21.4
Lack of work conditions 9 16.1
Lack of safety training 2 3.6
Consequences 23 41.1
Physical 20 35.7
Psychological 5 8.9

The frequencies of each subcategory connected to definition are shown in Table 2.

The most frequently mentioned categories were context (29) and consequences (23), followed by causes (16)
and the sudden characteristic (6) of an accident. In the context category, the subcategories with higher fre-
quencies were task performance (21) and workplace (16), while in the consequences category the results
showed a focus on the physical aspect of the accidents (20). Regarding the category of causes, lack of safe
equipment (12) and working conditions (9) were the subcategories more frequently mentioned.

3.2. Homals

As previously mentioned, Homals provides an organization of the data along a two orthogonal dimensions
structure (Table 3).
Dimension 1 was associated with the definitions given, personal history of accidents and activity sector
(Eigenvalue 0.142). On the other hand, Dimension 2 was connected to the recent accident experience and
socio-demographic characteristics (Eigenvalue 0.111). Explanations for occupational accident were divided
between the two dimensions. Table 4 provides a description of the coordinates that allows the placement of
each variable in the analysis in this two dimensional space.
The intersection of these two dimensions presents a four quadrants structure of the data. Fig. 1 presents an
organized synthesis of the results found. The position of the variables correspondent to the coordinates pre-
sented in Table 4 is presented in structured representation.
The definitions on the left-side quadrants in Fig. 1 were designated defensive because were focused almost
exclusively on external causal factors, minimizing the personal responsibility of the employee. On the other
hand, attributions named internal were situated in the right-side quadrants, with primary internal attribution
and mentioning only one external factor, emphasising the personal role of the employee in the occupational
accident. On a different perspective, the upper quadrants were characterised by simple attribution styles,
because they only focused on a maximum of two causal factors. Finally, the lower quadrants reflected more
complex attribution approaches, including both locus of control (internal and external) and several
Regarding the nature of the definitions, they were classified as defensive (referring the causes and sudden
characteristic of the accident) definitions or neutral (based on the accident’s consequences and context). When
interpreting the definitions regarding their focus point, they could be centred in the fact that an occupational
accident was most of all an accident (definitions based on consequences and characteristic) or in the perception
that an occupational accident is specially something that happens at work and reporting it to the workplace
(definitions related to the context and causes).
Results showed that an occupational accident experience was associated with defensive explanations based
on external factors, supporting Shaver’s (1970) defensive hypothesis. The results also showed that an occupa-
tional accident experience was associated with defensive definitions and defensive attributions (left-side
966 C. Niza et al. / Safety Science 46 (2008) 959–971

Table 3
Discrimination measures in both dimensions
1 2
Context 0.353 0.012
Context_workplace 0.185 0.015
Context_task 0.291 0.044
Context_commuting 0.081 0.011
Sudden characteristic 0.017 0.012
Causes 0.452 0.094
Causes_lacksafety 0.437 0.091
Causes_lackconditions 0.443 0.112
Causes_lacktraining 0.070 0.029
Consequences 0.467 0.179
Consequences_physical 0.408 0.176
Consequences_psychological 0.125 0.023
Primary attribution 0.135 0.147
E_lackinspection 0.042 0.014
E_lack supervision 0.044 0.028
E_badluck 0.013 0.040
E_unsafeequipment 0.090 0.029
E_inadequatetraining 0.006 0.027
E_pressure 0.060 0.007
E_poorhousekeeping 0.011 0.048
I_lackskill 0.047 0.021
I_attentionlapse 0.016 0.012
I_misconduct 0.044 0.061
I_inexperience 0.127 0.006
I_badday 0.009 0.134
I_carelessness 0.100 0.133
I_fatigue 0.002 0.013
Accident ever 0.217 0.194
Accident last 3 years 0.126 0.218
Activity sector 0.289 0.253
Sex 0.051 0.083
Age 0.094 0.508
Literacy 0.082 0.282
Seniority 0.184 0.471
Employment situation 0.037 0.184
Eingenvalue 0.142 0.111

quadrants). This result confirmed an association between explanations and definitions forms of sense-making.
On one hand, workers who believe accidents are due to bad luck consider an occupational accident something
that is sudden and unpredictable. On the other hand, workers who explain these accidents as a result of orga-
nizational weaknesses (e.g., unsafe equipment) defined an occupational accident in the same way: by its causes.
Furthermore, the results also revealed a connection of definitions focusing on the accident with a simple attri-
butional style, and definitions focusing on work with a more complex attributional style.
Fig. 1 also showed an association of each profile of attribution and definition (providing real examples
taken out of interviews) with the correspondent socio-demographic groups. The results propose that different
work experiences and practices may be connected with diverse ways to define and explain occupational acci-
dents. Workers at the beginning or end of their professional careers seem to understand accident in a simpler
way than individuals at the peak of their work lives. The different work environments of services, construction
or industry also appear to influence the perception of occupational accidents. This result strengthens the per-
spective of occupational accidents sense-making being an active and purposive process that relates to individ-
uals according to their needs and motivations.
C. Niza et al. / Safety Science 46 (2008) 959–971 967

Table 4
Coordinates of variables in Dimension 1
1 2
Context 0.633 0.354
Context_workplace 0.652 0.957
Context_task 0.776 0.279
Context_commuting 1.038 2.341
Sudden characteristic 0.195 0.519
Causes 1.196 0.184
Causes_lacksafety 1.436 0.036
Causes_lackconditions 1.577 0.004
Causes_lacktraining 1.740 0.054
Consequences 0.867 0.509
Consequences_physical 0.906 0.625
Consequences_psychological 1.165 1.808
Primary internal attribution 0.177 0.113
Primary external attribution 0.345 0.275
E_lackinspection 0.684 2.266
E_lack supervision 0.368 0.358
E_badluck 0.460 0.202
E_unsafeequipment 0.398 0.319
E_inadequatetraining 0.215 1.118
E_pressure 1.883 0.042
E_poorhousekeeping 0.248 0.382
I_lackskill 1.130 2.030
I_attentionlapse 0.234 0.218
I_misconduct 0.119 0.007
I_inexperience 1.008 0.114
I_badday 0.904 2.165
I_carelessness 0.580 0.237
I_fatigue 0.451 0.558
Accident over 3 years 0.088 0.429
Accident last 3 years 0.305 0.146
Education 0.120 0.048
Health 0.367 0.171
Other Services 0.223 0.027
Men 0.131 0.111
Women 0.119 0.048
20–25 years old 0.203 0.291
25–40 years old 0.092 0.121
40–45 years old 0.078 0.352
45–65 years old 0.032 0.022
Seniority less than 2 years 0.217 0.416
Seniority 2–5 years 0.037 0.337
Seniority 5–10 years 0.123 0.168
Seniority over 10 years 0.174 0.100
Unemployed 0.407 1.028
Retired 0.813 0.127

4. Discussion

This study aimed at understanding the association of a personal occupational accident experience with the
causal attributions and definitions given by workers, using interview data from a group of 56 participants.
The results suggested that an occupational accident experience influences workers’ sense-making about this
subject and this could be found in both causal attributions and definitions.
With respect to causal attributions, an occupational accident experience was associated with defensive
attributions (focused on factors external to workers), supporting the defensive attribution hypothesis. The
968 C. Niza et al. / Safety Science 46 (2008) 959–971

Systematic representation of the different attribution and definition styles and their associated
socio-demographic groups

Accident over 3 years ago

40-65 years old
Industry Sector SIMPLE EXPLANATIONS No accident
Seniority >10 years 9th/ 12th grade

Attribution: Bad luck (E), Bad day (I) Attribution: lack of skill (I), inexperience (I)
“An accident just happens” “Accidents happen because people don’t know
their job”

Definition: Characteristics Definition: Consequences

“An accident is something “An occupational accident can be from a
unpredictable” small scratch to death”



Attribution: Unsafe equipment (E),

Management Pressure (E), Inadequate Attribution: Misconduct (I), Carelessness
Training (E), Poor Housekeeping (E), (I), Attention Lapse (I), Fatigue (I), Lack
Lack inspection (E) supervision (E)
“There are several causes to accidents “Accidents happen because people don’t pay
but basically accidents happen because attention and are irresponsible. But there
there is no safe equipment and facilities” can be other reasons”

Definition: Causes Definition: Context

“An accident is something that happens “An occupational accident is an accident
because of lack of working conditions” that happens in the workplace”

Accident less than 3 years ago No accident

Construction Sector COMPLEX EXPLANATIONS Recently employed
6th grade WORK RELATED DEFINITIONS 20-40 years old
Seniority 5-10 years Women
Services Sector

Fig. 1. Systematic representation of the different attribution and definition styles and their associated socio-demographic groups.

consistency of this hypothesis suggests that understanding the possible ways this pattern of attribution may
take is also very important. Although all victims seem to share the same style of explanation, there were dif-
ferences in the attributions’ levels of complexity. This result proposes that victims undertake distinct defensive
strategies or process the information differently according to their specific characteristics (age, seniority) and
distance from the event (recently or more than 3 years ago). Moreover, the results reflected a predominance of
internal factors, supporting other results about the fundamental attribution error and the internality norm
(e.g., Beauvois and Dubois, 1988). Overall, subjects mentioned more internal factors when explaining occupa-
tional accidents, regardless of their past accident experience (victims and non-victims).
This defensive pattern was also found in the definitions of occupational accidents. The defensive definitions
are characterized by reference to the sudden nature of the accident or organizational weaknesses that caused it.
They were also named defensive (as attributions) because they reflect a particular focus of workers on the fea-
tures of accident that go beyond their personal control. This description of occupational accidents is associ-
ated with defensive attributions, shedding light on the combined sense-making process of defining and
explaining events. The recognition of the association between these two reasoning forms may prevent negative
C. Niza et al. / Safety Science 46 (2008) 959–971 969

information cycles in the organizations: employees who believe an accident is something unpreventable and
due to bad luck will be less likely to take protective measures and to accurately report the event. If the need
for prevention is not raised, workers may keep thinking that accidents are caused by fate or organizational
flaws and will not report accidents caused by their own misconduct.
This study presents one major limitation. Despite the structured questions format, the interviews were per-
formed by several Psychology students, more inexperienced that senior researchers in the collection of the
data. However, possible biases arising from this data collection procedure were minimized through the com-
plete record and transcription of the interviews.
Nevertheless, our results have important methodological, theoretical and practical implications (Rynes
et al., 2005).
At the methodological level, our study provided a qualitative analysis of the causal attribution combined
with the definitions of occupational accidents that was inexistent in the literature. There are several examples
of studies about causal attributions of accidents, but most are based on quantitative scales that are presented
to the participants in a predetermined format. Our study offered the possibility to workers to express their
subjective views without the limitations of a fixed and prearranged response instrument and the Homals
method permitted the analysis of the richness of the answers.
At the theoretical level, this study highlighted the variability of the sense-making differences among
employees and suggested that the study of the lay interpretation of occupational accidents should pay atten-
tion to these particularities. Furthermore, it included the analysis of the definitions of occupational accidents
and connected them with causal attributions in a larger lay epistemology framework (Bar-Tal and Kruglan-
ski, 1988). To our knowledge, this the first study to introduce definitions, combining the analysis of both
processes and the results have shown that this was an important advance to research. Moreover, our study
suggested the mentioned possibility to expand the predictions of Shaver’s defensive hypothesis, including dif-
ferences in the type and complexity of the victims’ explanations. According to Deschamps and Clémence
(2000) there exists a great variability of causes within the internal and external categories. The two groups
sharing external attributions (defensive) present some differences: the older group has an ‘‘it was just an acci-
dent” perspective (Woodcock, 1995) with a (simple and defensive) bad luck explanations, while the other
group numbered a variety of external factors present in the workplace (complex and defensive). On the other
hand, an occupational accident experience was associated with defensive definitions, focusing on the acci-
dent’s characteristics and causes. It was mostly defined as something unexpected by the older and more
senior workers and defined as an event caused by organizational factors by the younger and lower seniority
At the practical level, this study has important implications for organizational accidents record and preven-
tion programs. The official organizational definition of occupational accident is likely to be more similar to
some groups of employees than others, and this distance may interfere with the company process of collecting
and registering occupational accidents data. To an employee that thinks an occupational accident is an event
resulting from his personal misconduct at work, a commuting accident may not be considered an occupational
accident. Furthermore, if a worker defines an occupational accident as the result of poor working conditions,
an injury due to a personal attention lapse will probably not be regarded as an event worth reporting. All these
possible variations may leave many occupational accidents unrecorded and should be taken into account in a
precise collection of information about these hazardous occurrences. Moreover, the explanations given to the
accident influence worker’s future prevention behavior and the anticipation of this process are important for
corrective measures. The answer employees give to uncertain and dangerous events is congruent with the per-
ceived causes and the careful assessment of the variety of attributions among workers can increase the likeli-
hood of safety promotion programs success.


This study was funded by FCT (Foundation for Science and Technology – Portugal) with reference
FCT.PIQS/PSI/50070/2003. For more on this project see Silva et al. (2006,2007).
970 C. Niza et al. / Safety Science 46 (2008) 959–971


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