Complacency is an Enemy of Workplace Safety

When reading OSHA news releases you often see comments from officials pointing to simple complacency as a serious hazard on the jobsite. These statements were copied verbatim:

  • Complacency regarding worker safety will not be tolerated
  • It is easy to become complacent and not think about the consequences.
  • There is no excuse for this type of complacency.
  • This injury resulted from management complacency.
  • OSHA will not tolerate a company’s complacency towards hazards confronting workers.
  • Complacency is dangerous.

Complacency Risks Can Be Reduced

The definition of complacency is straightforward: a feeling of contentment or self-satisfaction, often combined with a lack of awareness of pending trouble or controversy.

In our industry, complacency is easy to encounter. For example, a worker has been doing the same job routinely, and as time wears on he starts functioning on auto-pilot until the unexpected happens. Or, an experienced manager who has not had an accident on the job starts taking for granted that his crew will always work safe, until the unexpected happens. Complacency starts with the assumption that all is well and that everything will continue that way as it has in the past. Wrong!

We can’t change what happened yesterday – good or bad. But we can ensure that workers know the mission, know how to perform tasks, have the right PPE and tools, and that they are reminded of the potential hazards and actions needed to control or eliminate them. By doing these checks daily, or at least regularly, complacency can be avoided.

The problem with complacency is that an individual action cannot be controlled with a regulation. People in general tend to regulate their behavior based on a balance between risk exposure and risk avoidance. On the jobsite, if a worker determines the level of risk associated with a job task is greater than the acceptable level of risk exposure, that worker will be more likely to exercise greater levels of care when performing the task. On the flip side, if the worker never experienced a task-related incident and feels that the risk is low, then that worker will be more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior. Sometimes workers need to be reminded that accidents don’t just happen and that complacency could be the cause.

Studies indicate and common sense suggests new workers with less than six months’ experience on the job are more likely to be involved in an accident than experienced workers. The primary causes of new workers getting injured are: 1) the absence of established safe job procedures, 2) inadequate appreciation of the dangers involved, and 3) lack of proper training.

Training plays a vital part in the risk exposure and risk avoidance equation. Inexperienced, inadequately trained workers are more likely to place themselves in greater risk inadvertently because they do not know better. However, an inexperienced worker who has been properly trained and is aware of the hazards may be less likely to take chances than an experienced worker in the same position. The reason for this is simple: The inexperienced worker has no basis for judging the risk associated with a particular behavior other than the training. An inexperienced worker may determine the risk to be higher than an experienced co-worker. The inexperienced worker is less likely to be complacent, take chances, or deviate from the training.

Experience Doesn’t Always Prevent Accidents

It is alarming to discover that older, more experienced workers – the ones who “should have known better” – account for a large number of construction accidents and fatalities. Part of the problem is complacency, which is defined for these employees as smugness, self-satisfaction, and arrogance.

Have you ever heard an older, more experienced worker grouse out loud, “I’ve been doing it like this for 20 years and never had an accident?” The assumption behind the statement is age, experience, and skill are the primary factors in the prevention of accidents. But some current theories regarding risk-taking behavior suggest that this may not always be true. The perceived risk in a situation is a function of what is perceived as dangerous and the consequences attached to risk-taking. As workers’ self-confidence increases with years of experience, the perception of the risk involved can diminish to the point where they do not perceive any risk at all.

Factors that decrease the perceived level of risk of an activity include task familiarity, hazard compensation, repeated risky exposure, and complacency. These factors are largely a function of the worker’s level of experience with the hazard. When workers regularly expose themselves to hazards and experience no harm, risk-taking habits start to develop. When unchecked, the perceived level of risk decreases, complacency starts to increase, and the worker accepts a higher level of risk.

Simply put, experience and skill can actually have a negative effect on risk-taking behavior, leading the experienced worker to take riskier chances than a less experienced worker might take. Human error has been identified as one of the leading causes of accidents – and complacency fits right in as part of human error. Experienced workers, even those who have been properly trained, may be more likely to place themselves at greater risk because they may be overly confident about their abilities. Their experience dictates that they have beaten the odds before.

Understand Complacency Within Your Own Job Sites

All too often managers and workers do not realize their complacency until someone points something out about their actions or until they have a near-miss or an accident. To help prevent people from becoming complacent they must first understand what it means. Employers should take the time to educate their workers about complacency and how it can affect their actions on the job.

Managers, foremen, and employees must not take safety for granted, because something can happen to any one of them at any time if somebody is complacent about how to perform the job safely. Safety does not just happen – it requires a conscious effort on the part of each and every employee on the jobsite.

To help ensure that managers and workers do not become complacent, companies should implement programs to keep safety in the forefront of every job. For example, a company should start by making sure the job is designed with an eye on safety, ensure safety devices are incorporated into the job plan, and develop safe operating procedures for job tasks to minimize risks.

Other helpful best practices include: providing safety training and/or refresher training for all workers; providing warnings in the form of signs, posters, toolbox talks, etc.; sending out safety memos by mail or email; placing safety reminders in employee payroll envelopes; and providing weekly toolbox talks to remind workers about safety related to specific jobsite tasks.

In summary:

  1. Keep the company’s values and safety mission at the forefront all the time. For example, start the day with a safety message and remind managers and workers that their safety and well-being are far more important than getting a job finished.
  2. Make sure all workers understand their job, what is expected of them, and how to perform it safely. Make sure workers know and understand the safety rules, how to use the equipment they will be expected to use, and exactly what you wish them to do.
  3. Avoid routines that require the worker to do the same thing all the time. Training workers to do different things and giving them the opportunity to diversify their tasks keeps them interested so they don’t become complacent.
  4.  Managers and workers should be instructed to observe their fellow employees because it helps raise their awareness as well as that of the co-worker. Obviously when something is not being done correctly, there must be an emphasis on safety, and the observer should advise his/her co-worker.
  5. Formal safety training is where it all starts but it is important to remember that most people will only remember about 10-20% two weeks later. Therefore, it is important to follow up with additional training such as toolbox talks and other regular reminders about safety.

Many companies implement a team approach, charging all employees with looking out for each other. The purpose is to ensure that the inexperienced workers learn how to perform the work safely and to ensure complacency does not become part of your company’s internal culture.

Complacency can be a safety issue and there are no OSHA regulations that apply to it. We cannot control the thoughts within the employee’s mind but we can help to change their mindset if we train them regularly and make sure they understand how important it is for them to stay focused on the job safety procedures every day. Companies that take the time to focus on getting managers and workers to avoid complacency will prevent accidents.

George Kennedy is Vice President of Safety for the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) and is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP).

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