Counting on Complacency in HazCom

Counting on Complacency in HazCom

Complacency and memory play a much bigger role in HazCom compliance than you think.

Safety professionals at over five million workplaces have set up a hazard communication system. They’ve trained over 40 million employees on chemical risks and how to use the system. But having a system to manage chemicals and providing knowledge of chemical dangers doesn’t mean those employees are consistently attentive to them or follow the system to the letter.  

As the person responsible for hazard communication, you have the right to know that what OSHA tells you isn’t enough to ensure workers always comply with OSHA’s own standard. The safety agency gives you the what, but not all of the how. And for your employees, OSHA provides them with the right to know, but not what they should want the right to know about. In particular, there are two keys to compliance that OSHA will likely never provide.  

The standard that’s known as the “right to understand” needs an update. But not the proposed update in which OSHA wants to move from an old version to a slightly less old but still outdated version of GHS. Instead, I propose that the “right to know” part should include the right to know about human factors like complacency and memory, two elements in chemical handling failure or success. These two factors play a much bigger role in HazCom compliance than most people give them credit for. 

Complacency and the Right to Know 

Policymakers and safety advocates have been urging reluctant manufacturers to provide transparency on all manner of products for years, leading to information overload for end users. It’s to the point where people now give disclosure documents only a cursory skim or ignore them completely because of how common they are, as well as their length, complexity and lack of clarity.  

If you’ve ever purchased a new car or agreed to a tech company’s terms of service, you’re well aware that the devil resides in the details. It doesn’t take a lawyer to know there’s all sorts of weaselly clauses in the pages of legalese you’re asked to agree to. 

And yet, we all sign the contract anyway. We understand the basic contours of the bargain: you get the car in exchange for money, or you get to use the app in exchange for your user data. Everything else in the agreement? It’s hard to say, but you’re unlikely to ever be beholden to clause 14(b) in your phone contract, or the warranties and indemnity section of the car lease. As a result, few of us ever scrutinize every sentence in these lengthy documents. 

Complacency and contracts are rarely spoken about in the same sentence, but the two are close cousins. It seems counter-intuitive on the face of it, but it’s actually quite straightforward. Contracts are all about risk management; they spell out what each party is obligated to do or not do, and what happens when those obligations aren’t met. And complacency, as we all know, is when people become overly familiar with risk, when they start perceiving a task as less risky than it actually is and, in some cases, tuning out risk altogether. 

And make no mistake, it’s especially easy to tune out risk when it’s presented in a contract. We agree to let our Amazon Alexa device record and transmit every single word that’s spoken in our homes. We sign away all sorts of legal recourse in exchange for financing on a new car. But these risks—the very real likelihood that we will lose our privacy or be on the hook financially if something goes wrong—are easy to minimize in our minds or wave away entirely when they’re presented in contractual language. 

Once you’ve signed a contract, you rarely revisit it. Even in the case of smartphone apps, where the terms of service are always just a single click away, we never go back to read the legally binding agreements that govern our behavior. We can opt out at any time, can change our behavior if we want to. But we almost never do. All of this is to say that in many ways, the very nature of contracts breeds complacency. 

This entire discussion about complacency brings us back to HazCom. In many ways, if we want to understand how workers can become complacent when working with chemicals that are clearly labeled as being extremely dangerous, we should look at contractual complacency as a primary culprit.  

Remember the SDSs 

Safety data sheets aren’t contracts per se, but they bear many of the hallmarks of contracts. They are often written in plain language that inadvertently downplays the seriousness of any potential incidents. This isn’t the fault of the sheets and labels, as that’s just how language and the human brain work. And while workers tend to remember the general bargain—in exchange for a paycheck they must work with hazardous substances they should be mindful of—they often forget the devilish details of what can happen if something goes wrong. Not to mention forgetting all the various chemicals, classifications and components within the system that can lead to potentially serious incidents. 

There’s a handy OSHA BRIEF that “provides guidance to help workers who handle hazardous chemicals to become familiar with the format and understand the contents of the SDSs.” It’s only seven pages but it packs 16 required sections and 88 lengthy bullet points to understand and remember. No problem for Mongolian memory champion Munkhshur Narmandakh, but that’s about 81 more things than most people can hold in short-term memory while learning something new.  

To make matters worse, HazCom’s extensive details and relationship to complacency isn’t limited to contract-type zoning out of risk and information overload. The well-documented phenomenon of inattention blindness—when people fail to cognitively register certain objects in their visual field, especially if they are ever-present, like a wet-floor sign or other static hazard warning—is also at play. One classic study in the field of human factors found “evidence that on-product warnings have no measurable impact on user behavior and product safety.”

The gist of all this research is that frequent exposure to a hazard breeds overconfidence, complacency and in some cases a literal inability to notice a warning label. Infrequent use or lots of variability with handling different chemicals can also present extensive challenges to memory. On the flip side, as we will see, frequent communication about the hazards fights complacency. 

Safety data sheets have all sorts of thorny ways in which they can prick people with complacency. What’s a safety professional to do? It’s not like you can take a Sharpie to chemical labeling to literally underline the dangers. Even if you could, workers would quickly become familiar with your touch-ups to the point of being blind to them. 

If people don’t remember the procedure or where information is, if they forget to check the label or SDS, or if they aren’t able to explain to an OSHA inspector the what and how of their specific chemical handling, then you’re not likely to be in regular compliance, even if the written documents, signs and labels are in place. 

Problem, Solution, Same 

Fortunately, the challenges of complacency and memory also offer a solution to effective HazCom training. One way to help people remember is by engaging in frequent two-way communication to disrupt complacency and shore up hazard-related memory.  

Retrieval practice and spacing are two related learning principles that help people remember what they learn, especially where there are lots of details like GHS. Getting people to recall information in the classroom instead of just telling them the info is important. And so is engaging in two-way dialogue after classroom training with toolbox talks or one-on-one conversations between workers and their supervisor, or with you during walk-throughs. Getting employees to tell you about the chemicals they deal with and how they navigate the process helps with memory, and it helps fight complacency and other human factors too. 

Frequent two-way communication does one more really important thing. It gives you the opportunity to bring feedback from the individual into the organizational HazCom system to make it better. If you’re already engaging with workers on the topic, simply asking them about their challenges or suggestions for improving the process is an easy way to identify gaps that could compromise their ability to comply in the future. 

This is why you don’t need to worry too much about if/when OSHA will update its standard or accept my proposed right to know about human factors. With regular feedback from the frontline chemical handlers, your system will be able to address the otherwise unavoidable problems of complacency and memory in HazCom. Sure, you’ll still need to update some of the technical details once OSHA finishes the years-long process of tweaking its standard, but your human system will help you do it effectively and efficiently. 

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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