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Tackling health and safety: are we complacent?

03 May 2019

Larry Wilson is vice president of SafeStart, an advanced safety awareness training programme

In January this year, the Health and Safety Executive reported on a number of health and safety failings, including employee deaths, poor safety practices and failing to control risks. Almost two years after the Sentencing Guidelines came into force in February 2016, employers can expect increased fines and harsher custodial penalties to accompany any major failings. Controlling health and safety processes as a manager continues to be a daunting task, especially if the issue is largely under-appreciated at board level. Unfortunately, a lot of companies aren’t effectively addressing the need for employee safety awareness within their overall safety framework and so not actively developing the safety skills and habits that are as critical as engineering or procedural improvements in keeping their people safe. 

The very real threat of personal complacency is one such area of awareness that is leading to significant numbers of injuries and is below the radar of most organisations. 

How to stop 'switching off'

Despite the strength of any existing health and safety management processes, once an individual settles into a routine, performing the same process everyday can soon become mundane and operating on auto-pilot happens naturally. Complacency can steadily reduce concentration levels over time, even in potentially hazardous situations, it can also impact decision making and lead people to trust something important to memory rather than doing what needs doing there and then or setting up a process or system to help them remember what is important. When you’re “switched off” it’s harder to recognise changes in familiar situations, when the danger and risk is perceived as low but is actually higher than normal. It can also cause overconfidence in our own abilities to deal with a given risk.

How do you, as managers, prevent this? Things like changing safety posters every 12-15 weeks, posting regular safety alerts, and discussing close calls/near-misses at group meetings help, but at SafeStart we also believe that organisations also need to engage individuals and build awareness with questions such as:

What states of mind are involved when driving to or from work? For example, is rushing, frustration or fatigue ever present?

What’s worse for you: driving to work in the morning or going home - being frustrated going to work vs. fatigue and complacency going home?

What’s the most likely way someone doing your job could get injured?

The idea with this exercise is to get people thinking and understanding how dangerous not having your mind on the task in hand is. Fighting complacency doesn’t require expensive equipment, but takes personal effort from workers, and an appreciation of how complacency contributes towards the risks. 

Other error reduction techniques that we teach in SafeStart include:

Working on safety related habits e.g. moving your eyes before you move your hands, feet, body or car, looking in the direction of travel.

Testing your footing or grip before committing to it 100%

Looking at your “second foot” as you step over a kerb or cable or something else you could trip on (it’s usually your trailing foot that trips you up)     

Habitually looking for the line of fire and what could be coming in your direction that may harm you

Analysing close call and small errors, asking why did that happen and reflecting on if you could do something differently either in the moment or even change a long-term habit

Although changing old habits and developing new ones takes real effort, once the change is made, they become ingrained and automatic. This doesn’t remove the necessity to ensure that employees operate in a safe working environment with risk reduced to the appropriate level. But spending time to really educate your workers on the dangers of complacency, giving them skills and techniques to address this, will keep your employers far safer than relying on an external system alone, both at work, on the road and at home.