Attention sign on industrial background

Use of alert icons shown to worsen worker adherence to hazard statements

Research indicates hazard statements with alert icons in procedures could lead to dangerous incidents on the job
February 22, 2022

It is common in high-risk industries for companies to provide workers with procedures that include a hazard statement aimed at facilitating safe and effective completion of their tasks while on the job.

Hazard statements are meant to communicate potential work hazards as well as ways to mitigate those hazards. Potential hazards can be indicated by an alert icon such as a yellow triangle with an exclamation point, a video warning or a sign warning of the dangers. Although these guidelines are meant to protect the workers, issues with them often lead to dangerous incidents.

A recent study by a team of Texas A&M University researchers that includes S. Camille Peres, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, found that the presence of alert icons did not improve adherence to hazard statements, and even worsened worker performance.

The team also concluded that more fundamental procedure hazard statement research is needed to identify effective designs and that the current regulations and guidelines being used should be revisited regarding hazard presentation in procedures.

The results of the team’s study were recently published in Human Factors, the Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

“The findings of these studies are pretty surprising. For the first study we had originally designed it as merely a method of testing our protocol for the simulation study,” Peres said. “When we got the surprising results I told the students, ‘We are definitely going to need some more data before we present this.’”

Peres and her colleagues performed two experimental studies—a laboratory study and a high-fidelity simulation. Both studies manipulated the hazard statement design elements present in procedures participants used while performing their tasks. The worker’s adherence to mitigating these hazards was compared with the hazard statement designs to determine if they translated to the procedures.

The team found that the guidelines currently used for consumer products for hazard statement designs did not translate to procedures used by workers in high-risk industrial settings. This could lead to dangerous incidents that could result in injuries and possible fatalities.

In addition, the researchers found that making the alert icons more prominent by highlighting them or putting a box around them did not improve worker adherence to the hazard statements and that the total number of design elements did not have a positive effect on adherence.

“One of the really surprising findings regarding when alert icons are used in procedures is that the likelihood of adherence to the hazard statement was lower with the alert icon,” Peres said. “It’s not just that the icon didn’t help, it made performance worse.”

As a result of their findings, Peres and her colleagues stated that future research is needed to replicate their findings and identify reasons for them. They also concluded that there is a need to revisit the current regulatory and standard guidance regarding the design of hazard statements for procedures, as current guidelines may result in people not attending to the information in the hazard statements.

“Although we have replicated these results in other studies now, there is a real need for others to do so as well as using other environments and types of procedures,” Peres said. “However, we think the results clearly indicate that the warnings research from consumer products do not necessarily translate to procedure design.”

Peres’ co-authors on the study include Joseph W. Hendricks, PhD, research associate and senior investigator for the Next Generation Advanced Procedures Consortium; Timothy Neville, PhD, research associate for the Next Generation Advanced Procedures Consortium; Cara A. Armstrong, MPH, GSP, AEP, risk control representative at CNA Insurance; and doctoral student Stefan Dumlao.

— Tim Schnettler

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