Safety professionals are constantly bombarded with information to consider for increasing the impact of their efforts to manage behavior or lead people more effectively in order to prevent workplace injuries. This includes slick brochures from consultants who offer research evidence to "prove" their approach is the best. The term "research" is periodically used in presentations, in journal articles, and at professional development conferences to support one safety perspective or intervention approach over another. Thus, it's apparent that safety professionals need to understand some basic concepts about research in order to interpret the value of research evidence presented to them and become more evaluative consumers. They need to know how to discriminate between good and bad research.
Increasing safety professionals' knowledge and appreciation of applied research could lead to more objective evaluation studies in occupational health and safety. Not only should safety professionals propose important questions for empirical study, they should recommend certain situations to evaluate, methodologies to implement, interventions to compare, and interpretations to consider. They could also design, conduct, and analyze their own field experiments, and thus contribute to the limited research literature relevant to managing occupational safety.
This paper reviews some basic principles about research that safety professionals need to know in order to better evaluate research results and to formulate research questions and procedures. Safety professionals need to understand critical differences between case studies, surveys, laboratory experiments, and field studies. Then they can become better consumers of information; better yet, they can design and conduct their own research to evaluate the impact of various intervention techniques. Such applied research can be convenient to conduct and require no financial support. In other words, safety professionals can actually collect objective data throughout their daily routines that not only improves their decision making, but is also motivating.
Researchers apply the scientific method, which has three basic objectives: a) to describe (as in case studies), b) to predict (as in surveys), and c) to control (as in manipulations of independent variables to study cause-and-effect relationships). Unfortunately, safety presentations often use a certain kind of research (e.g., a case study) for an inappropriate purpose (e.g., to claim understanding of a cause-and-effect relationship). Or, sometimes the manipulations of independent variables in a field study are flawed, and a purported cause-and-effect relationship leading to presumed understanding is unfounded.
For these three types of research (descriptive, correlational, and experimental), it's important to discriminate between reliable and unreliable measures and between valid and invalid results. This increases a person's ability to distinguish between subjective opinions and objective evidence. There needs to be more applications of the scientific method and less reliance on common sense when selecting or developing an intervention approach for occupational safety.