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The Workplace Complacency Trend in Accident Prevention
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
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
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
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
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
Performance Effort line shown in Graph 1C. In all my years of private
and enforcement experience, no employer has been able to maintain the
prevention efforts trend at the peak level found immediately following
accident. However, with the knowledge that this gradual decline is
the safety professional should strive to obtain top management's
maintaining a level of accident prevention efforts just below the peak
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
David W. Folk completed his Ph.D. in Occupational Safety and Health in June 2006. He has 16 years' experience with U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as a Compliance Safety and Health Officer. Folk previously had two years' experience with Virginia Department of Labor and Industry as a Safety Officer and 10 years' experience in the private sector as a safety professional or consultant in heavy construction and general industry.