Occupational Health & Safety

The Workplace Complacency Trend in Accident Prevention

To overcome it, safety professionals must search for new and innovative ideas to keep the workforce interested.

AS a safety professional with nearly 28 years of experience in the occupational safety and health field, I've had many opportunities to perform evaluations of accident prevention programs. In my research and conversations with safety professionals, many safety professionals are aware of this problem and seek assistance in finding solutions. For the lack of a better technical name, I have always called the problem the Workplace Complacency Trend. The Workplace Complacency Trend in accident prevention is the theory that there is occasionally a level of complacency present in the workplace prior to the occurrence of a major accident. Then, during a span of time following an accident, complacency will eventually return accident prevention efforts to pre-accident levels.

When a human being performs tasks repetitiously, there is the tendency for the person to become bored or complacent with the tasks and begin performing the task almost subconsciously. Many of us have experienced the phenomenon when we travel the same route home from work every day: There are days when our minds are deep in thought about the day's problem, and the next thing we know we are pulling in our driveway. We can recall only small parts of the actual trip home; it was as if our brains and body were set on autopilot. A repetitious task within an accident prevention program has the tendency to create lack of interest and complacency.

When reviewing accident prevention programs, safety professionals attempt to determine the level of management's participation and commitment to the safety program. What are the attitudes of management and employees toward the program? Graph 1A reflects the common trend of accident prevention efforts that exists in workplaces prior to many accidents. These companies demonstrate some form of positive movement toward preventing accidents, especially when a manager questions the company's high worker's compensation premiums or the company is being subjected to a lawsuit for negligence because of a workplace injury or illness. These events tend to stimulate everyone's interest in accident prevention. However, these little "burps" usually are not financially sufficient to justify top management's participation in the safety program.

Top management's involvement consists of speaking about worker safety and health during management meetings, but top management does not drive the program. Many top managers believe it is the safety professional's or human resource manager's responsibility to shoulder the task. As seen in numerous cases, the accident prevention efforts improve as the employer attempts to solve the problems mentioned previously. As time passes, efforts eventually decline to the moderate effort behavior of the past. One of the most difficult responsibilities placed on safety professionals is trying to keep everyone interested and motivated to participate in the safety program. A supervisor just scolded by his or her superior that the department did not meet production quotas could care less about safety as he focuses on how to improve production.

As reflected in Graph 1A, supervision will only place as much effort toward accident prevention as their immediate supervisor requires. There are periods when the accident prevention efforts will decrease below the moderate effort range level, and one of the most common causes for this decline is calls from top management to increase production. The accident prevention trend will improve and decline, influenced by the external factors discussed earlier. These trends do not exist for long durations of time, and efforts eventually return to the moderate effort behavioral pattern.

As Graph 1A displays, many employers are satisfied with the moderate effort, and this conduct is prevalent in a majority of the workplaces visited by me. Moderate is average; the employer has a written safety program, performs training, and performs routine workplace audits.

The remaining small portion of employers serves as an inspiration to us all. In these companies, even though the company employs a safety staff, top management will manage the safety program from the top. Top managers, from the president to the general manager, serve as the driving forces behind company compliance with the safety program, demanding supervisory and employee participation.

As the majority group chugs along putting moderate effort into accident prevention, an accident occurs. For this scenario, let us say the accident was a fatality. Speaking from experience, following the accident, top management usually reacts by stopping all production work. Management usually will insist the entire facility or construction project be subject to an OSHA-type inspection by the safety staff, consultant, or insurance carrier. Managers and supervisors become safety coordinators as they start to analyze every work assignment or task under their control. They tour their areas and think about whether there are hidden hazards or unsafe acts present in their work areas. Graph 1B shows that immediately following the accident, there is a significant improvement spike in overall accident prevention efforts. Commonly seen during this period, department supervisors, project superintendents, human resource managers, or safety professionals will perform safety training and tour work areas in an attempt to bring their workplace into compliance with company or OSHA standards.

The Complacency Timeline
As reflected in Graph 1B, everyone becomes involved in the safety program, including all levels of management and employees. Safety suddenly becomes the primary focus of everyone, and supervision spends less time in the office and more time in work areas monitoring employees. New policies implemented by top management after major accidents are effective because everyone is required to participate. Employers begin using enforcement programs, and all levels of supervision participate in accident prevention. The accident prevention efforts spike upward to the highest level ever encountered at the workplace. The safety program has never been better.

The duration of time it takes for complacency to begin rearing its ugly head can vary from several months after the accident to a year or two. This phenomenon has to do with the desensitizing of the workforce to the accident's trauma. Many times after a major accident, employers will bring professional counselors in to help co-workers deal with the death of a co-worker and the mourning process. Counselors will usually attempt to have co-workers discuss the accident event, their relationship with the victim, and personal feelings. Each time the co-worker discusses the accident, it begins to desensitize the co-worker to the trauma of the accident. Over time, employees begin to either forget about the trauma they felt the day of the accident or learn how to live with the death of a co-worker. As time passes, employees will return to their routines and be able to discuss the accident without problem.

When this begins to occur, the Workplace Complacency Trend begins to start its decline, seeking to reach the moderate behavior of the pre-accident era. Graph 1C shows the slow decline that occurs after an accident and how the workforce slowly becomes complacent.

Achieving Stable High Performance
Complacency is a human behavior safety professionals must consider in the maintenance of their safety program and continue to search for new and innovative ideas to keep the workforce interested.

Unless the safety professional can keep top management interested in the safety program, accident prevention efforts will return to the past moderate effort levels reflected in Graph 1C. The optimal level of participation in the accident prevention program is the Targeted Performance Effort line shown in Graph 1C. In all my years of private industry and enforcement experience, no employer has been able to maintain the accident prevention efforts trend at the peak level found immediately following a major accident. However, with the knowledge that this gradual decline is inevitable, the safety professional should strive to obtain top management's commitment to maintaining a level of accident prevention efforts just below the peak performance level.

To maintain the Targeted Performance Effort level will require a high level of top management participation and commitment.

Although there may be other solutions, the following are just a few of the ideas I have observed utilized by employers to help fight complacency among supervision and employees:

  1. Educate top management. Many top managers are not aware of the fluctuations that occur within their workplace's accident prevention efforts because these are not a topic discussed by institutes of higher learning. Pass your copy of Occupational Safety & Health to top management and "tab" this article.
  2. Form an Executive Safety Committee. Following the accident, establish a safety committee with top management as the committee chairperson. The committee will consist of top management from every department or construction project. Other smaller departmental or construction project safety committees can support the Executive Safety Committee, but the accident prevention driving force needs to come from the Executive Safety Committee. The only topics discussed at this meeting are those related to worker safety and health.
  3. Improve workplace training and complaint processing. Keep the training of employees specific to an employee's actual work. Training for supervision should be separate from the general workforce and approached differently than labor's training. Serve coffee and donuts at training sessions and attempt to create a casual, professional atmosphere. Create more of an open discussion approach to supervisory training and stimulate participation. The safety professional should introduce only one safety or health topic at the session and keep training on the topic to 10 or 15 minutes, with the entire session no longer than 30 minutes. Hold training monthly and, although they are not an organized safety committee, work toward unifying your supervisors into an accident prevention force.
  4. Feed the troops. Hold "safety day" workforce picnics or luncheons at least once every six months. These sessions are very useful and a very nice break in the routine for employees. Lunchtime barbecues also have also been very successful in gaining employee participation and interest in safety when projects or plants reach accident prevention goals. This is a good time for the distribution of hats and T-shirts as safety awards.
  5. Celebrate safety. Examine the interest in an annual summer family safety picnic. Involving the family in company successes and portraying a positive, proactive image of accident prevention to family members does stimulate employee involvement. Hold the picnic at a local campground or park, preferably at a location with a swimming pool. Throughout the day, hold competitions for children and adults and make it a great day of fun. Drawings for prizes would include the employee's spouse or significant other. This is not the type of event where you hand out hats or T-shirts as safety awards; make this a special event where employees receive cash, tools, gift certificates, or jackets with the company logo.
  6. Participate in partnerships and Voluntary Protection Programs. Examine the possibility of becoming involved in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) or enter into a partnership with OSHA. This type of involvement with OSHA helps create a positive image for your company and requires management and labor commitment and participation.
  7. Secure safety staff support. Lastly, the safety professional needs to have the ear of top management. Every manager, supervisor, and labor employee must know the safety professional speaks for top management and that any recommendation or instruction given by the safety professional carries the same weight as if given by top management. If the safety professional does not have top management's commitment, achieving a successful accident prevention program will be an unrealistic and unattainable goal.

Instill a Pilot's Mindset
As safety professionals, we need to instill in supervision and employees the same mindset as that of an airline pilot. Airline pilots perform their pre-trip inspection of the aircraft with total attention given to detail.

These inspections are routine and had been performed at least a thousand times before, but the pilot knows his or her failure to properly inspect and test all systems could result in catastrophic failure and death. Top managers and safety professionals need to seek this same level of dedication toward the prevention of accidents.

"The views presented in this article are the personal views of the author and do not represent the official views of the U.S. Department of Labor or the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration."

This column appeared in the January 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the January 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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