A Cognitive Approach to Safety

The human brain is fascinating. The way humans think, form connections, make decisions and analyze consequences has been studied since researchers and scientists have had the ability to do so. Gaining a better understanding of cognition, or the way workers acquire knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and senses, could help you to better protect your employees through a different approach to their safety training.

In an article for this issue, Kyle Krueger explains the phenomenon of “recency bias.” Basically, recency bias is a cognitive bias that favors recent events over historic ones. How does this impact your view on safety? Well, if you think about how a worker interacts with safety equipment, you might begin to see the connection.

Let’s think together about a common construction site. What are some of the hazards you might encounter? A few might be falls from height, hearing damage, slips, trips and falls, puncture wounds or struck-by incidents. If workers are at a great height, they are asked to wear proper PPE to keep them from falling and injuring themselves, right?

Well, let’s say a worker has gone through extensive training on how to wear his/her fall protection equipment and have worked on the job—without incident—for nearly a year now. Better yet, there hasn’t been any falls from heights on this jobsite since the worker started. This is great, right?

Yes—it is great, but without reinforced training and toolbox talks to remind employees why their fall protection is so crucial to their safety, they might start to think that they may not need it. Despite the fact the worker knows and understands that falls could happen without proper use of their fall protection, recent events have “proven” to them that this gear might be extraneous and cumbersome for no reason at all.

Therefore, that is how you get into incidents where workers might ease up on how the harness is put on, or maybe they stop wearing them when they believe they just need to complete a task “really quick.”

Understanding how the brain works can help safety professionals anticipate the moments when workers may become careless with safety procedures. Pinpointing these moments and dialing in on them with increased training and impromptu toolbox talks that evoke an emotional response can help ensure that recency bias does not set in. You want workers to remember that falls are common and if not properly prevented, it is not a matter of if—it’s a matter of when it happens to you.

This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Sydny Shepard is the former editor of Occupational Health & Safety.

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