What’s the connection between complacency and risk?

24 May, 2012 Terry Bogyo


It was a small thing, something noticed out of the corner of my eye, but the subsequent discussion got me thinking about what was really going on in the workplace and what it says about safety culture.

I was in a workplace the other day and noted the absence of a ground pin on an extension cord. I asked the worker using the cord about it and the worker told me it had been that way for a long time. He hadn't said anything to anyone about it. His supervisor had used the same cord and did not say or do anything about it. He had not been shocked and his equipment kept working. “So, what's the problem?” he asked.
The absence of injury is not the same thing as the presence of safety. The extension cord with the missing ground pin is clearly unsafe. It creates a defect in one of the important safeguards, barriers and defences in the workplace that are there to manage the inherent risks. Why didn't the worker, the supervisor or somebody else do something about it?

One possibility could be intentional neglect. Perhaps the supervisor knows about the safety implications of the missing pin but puts production at a higher priority. There is no excuse for intentionally putting workers at risk. Intentional neglect should be sought out and regulations enforced. Another possibility is ignorance. Perhaps the worker and the supervisor are truly unaware of the risk posed by the missing ground pin. We can do something about unintentional neglect through awareness building, inspection and education. There is a third possibility, one that is more pervasive and, to my way of thinking, more dangerous: complacency.
Maybe, at some point, someone did notice the missing pin and did intend to do something about it. Perhaps they took the extra precaution of making certain only double-insulated equipment was plugged into the cord. Perhaps the cord was reserved for non-polarized, two-pronged plugs—at least until the cord could be repaired. Perhaps, as the days past, using the damaged cord just became a habit—with and without the precautions.

If every time a worker used a defective cord he or she received a mild shock, there would be immediate feedback about the defect. That, of course, would be ludicrous. We are fortunate that most new equipment is designed with redundancies like double insulation to protect workers. Safety, on the other hand, does not provide such immediate and personal feedback. In this case, every time the defective cord was used, the worker was not shocked (no negative feedback) and the equipment worked (positive reinforcement for continuing to use the defective cord).

An extension cord with a missing ground pin left in use and unrepaired may be symptomatic of complacency. If the corporate safety culture is complacent in small things, then how can we expect larger hazards to be recognized and risks controlled?

I recall one safety director encouraging his employees to submit notices to him about hazards they noted. No matter how small, he wanted to know about these hazards— he wanted hundreds every month. Random draws from submissions and regular recognition for submitters provided reinforcement for the program. Most of the notes he received were about small oil spills, broken guards, and unsecured equipment—and the notes usually indicated that the defect had been immediately fixed. The safety director explained the benefits of this approach. Sure, the minor issues are fixed but, more importantly, the approach fought complacency. Workers were attuned to safety and alert to hazards.

To finish off the story, I was back at the worksite the next day. The extension cord was fully repaired with a new, heavy-duty three-pronged plug. It was a small thing: a few dollars for the part, a few minutes for the repair. A small victory in the battle against complacency.

About Terry Bogyo:

Terry BogyoTerry is the Director of Corporate Planning and Development for WorkSafeBC. His current responsibilities include environmental scanning, strategic planning and inter-jurisdictional comparisons.

Terry says of himself: I am a student of workers' compensation systems. Many years ago I discovered two things about this area. First, workers' comp and OH&S are of vital importance to people. Protecting, caring for and providing compensation to workers are important, noble and morally responsible endeavors. The second thing I learned was that no matter how much I knew about workers' comp/OH&S, there was always so much more to learn. This is an endlessly challenging area of study. My purpose, therefore, is not to lecture, but to reflect on the ideas and issues that are topical in this area... and to invite others to share in a learning experience. By adding your knowledge and insights, others with similar interests can participate in the discovery and study of this important domain.

His blog is "Workers' Compensation Perspectives".

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