Complacency is the Root Safety Hazard Behind All Others

Human behavior plays a crucial role in an organization’s ability to achieve zero safety incidents. Multiple studies from both Behavior Science Technology and OSHA tell us that 95% of ALL injuries are caused by workers’ unsafe acts or behaviors.

Safety complacency is described as “a state of mind where a worker is out of touch with the hazards and risks around them, often when they take conditions or routines for granted.” Complacency can sound a bit like a dirty word. It’s related to being lazy, unengaged, and non-observant. If anyone ever accused you of being complacent, it might be hard to hear and not get defensive about. That is why it’s extremely important to realize that EVERYONE – even the best of us – get complacent at times. It’s human nature and not always easy to recognize in ourselves and others.

After all, it is practically impossible for a human to work 8-10 hours fully and remain totally concentrated on the task at hand. The human mind does not function that way. The mind can concentrate for maybe 20 minutes before it phases out for a few minutes. Less with external factors such as the task being motivating or enjoyable, its difficulty, the person feeling stressed, hungry, tired, the environment being noisy, interruptions from others, or even the person’s mental state, just to name a few.

The signs of falling into complacency are as follows:

  • Bored with routine activities
  • Change in attitude/Frustration
  • False sense of security
  • Mind wanders off task at hand
  • Movements go on autopilot
  • Rushing to complete a task
  • Taking shortcuts
  • Frequent mistakes
  • Loss of initiative
  • Distraction or neglect
  • Carelessness
  • Fatigue
  • Not wearing PPE
  • Poor housekeeping
  • Lack of accountability
  • Negative or non-compliant safety culture

These signs quite easily lend themselves to critical errors on the construction site. They can cause close calls by equipment operators, loss of balance or grip, increased risk of caught-in, struck-by, and fall incidents, and puts workers in “the line of fire.”

With all of this in mind, it could be argued that complacency is the true culprit behind OSHA’s annual Top 10 List if we consider even the Top 3 examples below:

1. Fall Protection

  • Example – Worker sees but fails to cover a ground hole at the jobsite because he was focused on completing his task. A co-worker walks along carrying materials and not seeing the hole, trips into it, causing an ankle injury.
  • Cause – Complacency. The first worker knew about the hole but was too distracted with his own task to stop work, communicate about it, and cover the hole.

2. Respiratory Protection

  • Example – Worker comes to work with diagnosed respiratory disease from years of working around chemicals and silica without wearing proper PPE, although the company had trained and fitted him for respirators.
  • Cause – Complacency. The worker didn’t see any immediate effects in the past and with a false sense of safety, thought he’d be alright instead of wearing an uncomfortable respirator while he worked.

3. Ladders

  • Example – Worker confident with heights and needing to complete a task above grabs the closest step ladder available. It isn’t quite tall enough to comfortably reach the work area, but he stands on the top step and is able to complete it. When he looks to go down, he slightly loses his balance, enough for the ladder to shift underneath and force him to fall to the ground, resulting in a knee injury.
  • Cause – Complacency. The worker’s shortcut and risky behavior caused an incident when going to get a taller ladder to use properly could have prevented injury.

Think for a moment about the work tasks that you do every day and consider the safety precautions that you may skip because you’ve been doing them a certain way for years and nothing bad has happened… yet. If you were training someone, would you teach them to skip those steps too? Are there new best practices that should be considered that weren’t a concern in the past?

The #1 thing we can all do to help combat complacency is to practice self-awareness. Self-awareness is a muscle that can grow and develop. The more skill we have at recognizing signs of complacency in ourselves and others, the better our ability to have a heightened sense of awareness of the environment around us. This goes a long way because self-aware workers are more prone to catch when something is off or if they’re not in the right mindset.

If you feel complacency creeping in, here are some behaviors to help fix it:

  • Consider doing a self-audit of your work process to make sure you’re not missing any safety precautions or PPE.
  • “But I’ve always done it this way” is not an acceptable excuse for unsafe behavior. Correct and better your work processes that need improvement.
  • Observe the way other workers incorporate safety into their work processes.
  • Recognize when you may be rationalizing the ways it’s okay for you to cut corners.
  • Hold yourself and others accountable to a safer work process and environment.
  • Be a good example for your co-workers.
  • Make safety a habit by creating routines for yourself.
  • If you notice you are lost in thought during a task, take a moment and do what you need to do to shake yourself out of it.
  • Participate in the hazard reporting process. If you see a hazard, stop and correct it immediately and communicate so other workers can learn from it.
  • Don’t skip your JHAs and safety inspections.
  • Participate in safety meetings. Offer lessons you’ve learned along the way and provide tips you find helpful that pertain to that safety topic.

Never view any safety precaution as unnecessary. As they say, nothing bad will happen… until it does. Safety incidents are difficult to prevent with compliance alone. Complacency in our human behavior is what often leads to injury & being aware of that is the first step to preventing it.