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Is Complacency Impacting Personal Safety Behavior at Your Site?

February 7, 2018

complacency safety behaviors

Are you a task list person? Do you write out specific things that you need to get done and diligently work through your list? Maybe even write down a task after completing it just to allow yourself the satisfaction of crossing it off? 

The answer to this simple question is anything but simple. In fact, it offers the first hint into the depths of the psychological phenomenon known as complacency. Complacency is often misused when it comes to personal safety. While it's true that some of us are much more prone to be complacent than others, it doesn't quite explain safety behaviors in full.

Complacency, in the context of personal safety, usually goes like this: As an individual reaches a comfort level with the common exposures associated with his work environment, he assumes he controls them solely by repeating what he has done in the past. After all, nothing serious has happened so far! The result is a false sense of security which reinforces complacent behavior. All of us can fall victim to complacency to some degree.

Many safety professionals write about complacency from a non-psychological perspective as if it were something that we could eradicate if we just tried a bit harder. More signage, pre-shift safety talks, training, and so on. Others are confounded by it, unsure where to even begin. All of this reinforces that we, as safety professionals, must get better at understanding and predicting human behavior. In that vein, let’s start with the at-risk safety behavior – complacency.

If you approach personal safety from an internal perspective like I do, your first question is, “What are the stable traits we all possess that make a person more susceptible to complacency and how do we accurately assess for them?” In full disclosure, I am going to simplify a complex subject, acknowledging that more than one trait can correlate with complacent behaviors. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this brief blog I will focus on a single psychological trait, Control, which will provide insight into the world of complacency.

Definition of Control: Proactively taking measures now to ensure positive future outcomes. 

Control in a Safety Context: High Control individuals first seek to understand the precursors to increased exposures and then work proactively to reduce them. They are rarely caught off guard.

  • Example: "I rotate my tires every 7,000 miles to ensure they wear evenly and regularly inspect them for proper inflation and safe tread depth. When the tread depth hits the level recommended by the manufacturer for replacements, I replace my tires."

You see, it’s hard to be complacent, forgetful, or unaware of your tires' state when you created and implemented a meaningful process that monitors their conditions. Notice I said this works when you own it and you feel an internal need to regularly confirm your tires are safe. This seemingly small element is missed by most. That is, where does your motivation come from? Internal or external? From within, or are you merely following a myriad of company safety rules?

Digging a little deeper, you find that these highly-responsible individuals feel a need to be in control of all the variables that impact their wellbeing; otherwise, they naturally experience a sense of discomfort. That internal discomfort drives their controlling behaviors – the list, the checking and rechecking, asking for a second opinion, and much more. Once they confirm and reconfirm everything is as it should be, the internal discomfort subsides. At least for a little bit. These individuals, not surprisingly, get injured much less than those lower in control. In summary, the strength of the Control safety trait aligns well with one’s level of complacency.

High Control people have many other positive attributes. Research shows they are healthier, earn more, exercise more consistently, have stronger personal relationships, and drink less. You might say these individuals are highly responsible (or, as one client told me, “They’re responsible alright…but they aren’t much fun!”).

By now, you may be thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could at least get a high-level read on someone’s level of control?” With validated tests, individuals can be assessed for this trait. These assessments, measuring control and many other safety traits, remain the most effective path forward to truly understand someone's safety behaviors.

A second option to get a quick read on the person’s control trait occurs through an interview question. As with all interviewing, I will caution that the question used isn’t nearly as important as properly interpreting the responses from the question.

Here is a quick technique to assess Control in the interview process:

  • Question: "We’ve all been late to appointments or meetings. Tell me about the last time this happened to you. What were the circumstances? How did it turn out?

  • Listen for the following indications:

    • Blaming others vs. taking responsibility

    • “It was out of my control”

    • Nothing learned to prevent it from happening again

    • A who-could-have-seen-this-coming victim mindset

  • What it means: Workers who blame a delay on an external factor, such as traffic, daily common interruptions, or another priority may have Control as their safety blind spot. This heightens their chance of injury in tasks that require vigilance. Individuals lower in Control tend to be more complacent, and therefore negative stuff happens to them more often.
By now, I'm sure you understand that a supervisor naively telling an employee low in Control to be more vigilant is ineffective. The supervisor assumes the employee simply doesn’t know he should be vigilant, or worse, may not care. If you have ever had a child who felt comfortable living in a messy bedroom, you know well that merely telling him or her to clean up the room is not effective. It is much more complicated than that! Most often, a parent's last resort is demonstrations and/or threats – which are mostly ineffective in changing a child's behaviors. The same is true in the workplace. So, what can be done to reduce complacency in your workforce?

Here are 3 steps to reduce complacency:

  1. Assess: Don’t merely guess – test your workforce for personal safety! This empowers you and them to confidently know their specific safety levels and to structure coaching and improvement based on their individual needs.

  2. Develop: Provide meaningful feedback to your employees in a structured way. This supports your workers' efforts to improve their personal safety behaviors. Both online and classroom-based training are examples of options that can be used. Regardless of the platform, the key is self-awareness from which a person's development plan originates.

  3. Sustain: Integrate internal safety into your safety culture and safety systems. You can choose to design your own systems or rely on the sustainability kits available on the market. Choose ones that are simple to implement and reinforce personal safety from an internal perspective.

Get to know your employees from a safety standpoint. Asking Control-related questions is a great starting point to gain insight on a person's natural wiring for safety. In doing so, you will discover hidden insights to improve personal safety for your workforce.

safety moments

Chris Klinvex Chris Klinvex , was the EVP and Co-Founder of Select International, acquired by PSI. He led the Safety Solutions Group focused on innovative research based safety solutions that are changing how organization approach workplace safety. His team’s most recent award for the new SafetyDNA® Assessment and Development program won the prestigious 2017 Best Online Safety training award from Occupational Health and Safety.