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The Most Dangerous Phrase

June 18, 2014

When we think about workplace safety, a number of factors that contribute to an employee’s overall exposure quickly come to mind.  We know that a person’s work environment certainly influences their odds of being involved in a safety incident, which is why individuals who have inherently dangerous jobs must be particularly diligent in their safety behavior.  But as we have learned from our recent series on the S.A.F.E. Model of SafetyDNATM, our unique personalities and tendencies lead to a wide range of safe and at-risk behaviors while on the job.  Although some people naturally have less personal risk than others, one potential pitfall that people high in SafetyDNA face is the false sense of security that can come from doing a job without getting hurt for a long time.  This brings us to another important factor of workplace safety that receives little attention - complacency.

468171529Fourteen years ago, Lisa Black was a nurse in Pittsburgh.  While caring for a patient infected with the AIDS virus, she was stuck by a needle used to provide the patient with an IV line.  Unfortunately, nine months later she became ill and learned that she had in fact been infected.  Now a professor at the University of Nevada, Lisa has since become a high profile advocate for the safety of health care professionals.  As of 2013, an average of 5.6 health care industry professionals per 100 were involved in safety incidents, much higher than the rate of injury and illness among all other private industries (3.8 per 100 employees).  Lisa emphasizes the importance of not becoming complacent at work, noting two things about her own story.  First, at the time of her incident, the procedures for handling sharp objects at her hospital were very inadequate and had not been reviewed or updated in years.  Second, she acknowledges that despite her years of experience that should have warned her about the potential dangers of said procedures, she performed them as instructed anyway.  She believes that her incident, and many others, is at least in part caused by employees following inadequate or outdated procedures simply because they are the status quo.

Complacency at work basically amounts to being satisfied and comfortable with the way things are done.  Protocols are often passed down through generations of trainers without any thought about whether these procedures are dated, up to current standards, or whether they are still the safest way to do the job.  Furthermore, workers can be conditioned to believe that their work environments are safe after going incident-free for a while.  They are only questioned about procedures after a safety incident occurs. It is important that we keep ourselves alert for potential hazards in our work environments and continually seek to improve our risk exposure.  Just because an injury has not yet happened does NOT mean that it cannot happen.  Employees need to understand why tasks are performed a certain way and think critically about what improvements can be made.  Otherwise, we are vulnerable of adopting the most dangerous phrase in workplace safety - “We’ve always done it this way.”

Our Guest Blogger this week is Craig White, a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. 

His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance.  He has six years of research experience at Tier-One universities (Texas A&M University, University of Houston, Rice University), and has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX.  He is also a contract safety services consultant for Select International.

Guest Blog