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Safety Complacency Causes Increased Incidents



We tend to assume that safety incidents only happen when workers are misinformed or mistrained. Unfortunately, that’s not true. A false sense of safety leads to real safety concerns. Assuming that you’ve done something enough that you won’t ever have an incident is a huge problem in occupational health and safety.


According to Mitchell Stapleton, SMS, CHST, who is the Corporate Safety Director at ARC, that assumption is a recipe for complacency. His insights are vital to developing behavioral-based safety practices, which consider prevention a matter of education rather than expertise.

Stapleton observed that falls are the most reported incident to OSHA. When you consider human behavior and our tendency toward confirmation bias, it’s easier to understand the cause of these falls. Workers develop complacency, assuming they won’t fall because they have done this task multiple times without incident. So, they don’t tie off. However, it takes only one mishap to make that choice significantly more dangerous.


That’s why the “hot topic” in safety will always be complacency. To keep your employees safe and maintain high safety protocols, you must determine why incidents happen, especially in the case of complacency.


Understanding the Root Cause of Safety Incidents

OSHA specifically eschews the word “accident” because it implies that the fall or other safety hazard was random and unavoidable. Instead, they prefer the word “incident,” and they believe that all incidents are preventable.


Stapleton notes that this language shifts our perception. When we consider something an accident, we’re more likely to assume that X number of successful tasks equates to zero risk of injury. Unfortunately, that’s not true, and that’s why complacency can lead to serious safety incidents.


A successful root cause analysis will identify everything behind a particular incident. For example, if a worker slips or trips (the most common cause of falls), a formal investigation might determine that it happened because of a spill or mess on the work surface. This could be prevented even if the worker did nothing wrong per se. Complacency includes behaviors of convenience, such as leaving out tools or neglecting to clean up grease slicks because “it will be fine.”


When you’re investigating an issue like this, it is essential that you ask not only what happened but also why. What factors contributed to the worker(s) feeling like safety protocols could be ignored? Were those protocols even communicated to them effectively? Your root cause analysis just may discover the greater problem: workplace complacency.


Stapleton recommends that you consider all the possible “what,” “why,” and “how” questions that could apply to each situation. Did a spill take too long to clean up, so workers let it be? Was there an equipment malfunction that a worker didn’t identify as hazardous?


Conducting a root cause investigation helps you uncover the misinformation, efficiency issues, or knowledge gaps that could help mitigate these risks. Always dig deeper and look for the multitude of layers behind a fall, trip, spill, etc.


Benefits of Root Cause Analysis for Employers

Performing a comprehensive investigation to determine the root cause of an incident will help prevent similar events from happening. You can reduce the risk of at-work fatalities or injuries to workers, the community, and even the environment. You’ll also avoid unnecessary costs related to business interruption, clean-up, emergency services, heightened regulations, audits, inspections, and OSHA or EPA fines.


Stapleton strongly advises construction firms and site supervisors to prioritize risk mitigation — and root cause analysis is crucial to a prevention strategy. Regulatory fines can be costly, but litigation is much worse. You could repeatedly invest in short-term solutions for incidents that could’ve been prevented or reduced in severity or frequency. Or, you can avoid those expenditures and loss of time by understanding the true root cause and fixing it.


Of course, the public is more likely to trust an employer with an incident-free record. The lower your Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR), the better your reputation. However, Stapleton notes that even the best safety plans won’t matter if your workers are complacent. The TRIR is calculated from the total number of recordable injuries compared to the hours worked by all employees. Ideally, this number should be as low as possible.


Strong safety practices and a low TRIR can also help you draw and retain high-performing staff. Most importantly, you could save a life (or more) by highlighting the problem of complacency.


How Can I Use This Information to Improve Workplace Safety Training?

Stapleton recommends incorporating root-cause analysis into your safety training and protocols. If someone fails to tie off scaffolding or select the right ladder for the job, consider why they made those choices. Are they fully aware of your company’s safety protocol? Do they understand the implications and risks of their decision? More often than not, they’re not being willfully ignorant or malicious but rather acting out of misplaced confidence that they’ll be safe performing the task. It’s up to you to create a “safety first” culture that values protocol and protection over competence — no matter how many times someone has completed a task.


As the Corporate Safety Director at ARC, Stapleton knows the value of safety protocols. It all starts with regular communication. All your team members should understand the rationale behind your protocols and why cutting corners or skipping procedures is never acceptable.


At ARC Services, we believe that safety is 24/7. If you share the same vision for your team and are looking for a reliable and safety-conscious mechanical contractor, we’d love to chat with you.


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