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“Complacency” Is Just More Shame and Blame Rhetoric

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By Phil La Duke

You keep using that word, I don’t think it means what you think it does”— Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride 

com·pla·cen·cy [kuhm-pley-suhn-see]

noun, plural com·pla·cen·cies.

1. a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect, or the like; self-satisfaction or smug satisfaction with an existing situation, condition, etc. (

Too often, when confronted with a repeated indifference to a hazard, safety professionals shrug and say, “our workers have just grown complacent”.  It’s a comforting thought, but largely hogwash. That’s not to say that workers don’t grow comfortable with hazards—every time we interact with a hazard and leave unscathed we teach ourselves that the hazard poses less and less danger until, ultimately we become blind to the jeopardy in which we are placed as we interact with.  This is the nature of learning but it’s hardly complacency—if we take complacency at its true meaning, then I don’t think workers have grown complacent; there is no smugness here, no quiet pleasure, just an acquired comfort with a hazard.

There is a difference between becoming complacent regarding hazards and becoming desensitized to the dangers of a hazard. It may seem like I’m splitting hairs here but consider whether or not becoming comfortable around hazards is a cause, a contributor, or a catalyst.  Becoming comfortable around a hazard doesn’t cause injuries, at least not in itself.  There are millions of workers around the world doing jobs that would scare the bejeezus out of us but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t doing them safely.  Many people fear heights and the idea of working on overhead lines would literally terrify them and yet utility workers fearlessly at heights that turn others into quivering jelly.  Miners confront the claustrophic’s deepest fears daily. While many miners and utility workers are injured on the job, many more are not, and complete their tasks safely and expertly. And so while workers tend to get less and less wigged out by the hazards endemic to the jobs they do, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this comfort equates with at risk behavior or recklessness.

Some will point to complacency as a contributor. Here again this is a specious argument.  For complacency to be a contributor it would have to measurably increase probability, severity, or length of exposure and it is unlikely that complacency alone would trigger a killer event. Take the case of the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin. Irwin died in a workplace accident. While shooting his a documentary called Ocean’s Deadliest, Irwin died after being pierced in the chest by a stingray barb. Prior to his death, many characterized Irwin’s behavior as reckless (a charge his supporters adamantly deny), but even his most ardent fans would likely admit that Irwin had become complacent to the dangers of his job. But did this complacency contribute to his death? Perhaps, but his complacency alone would not have been enough to cause his death (if he had not interacted with the stingray he would not have been killed.)  But let’s say for the sake of the argument it was a contributor, it was far less a contributor than his risk taking. Essentially, the complacency contributed to the risk taking, so at best it was a contributor to a contributor.

Perhaps complacency is a catalyst, but here again it’s a tough case to make. There is scarce few instances where complacency hastened the injury, or even set things in motion.  At best complacency doesn’t prevent injuries in instances where a simple corrective action might have; it’s a maybe, but not a strong maybe.

In the final estimation blaming worker complacency for injuries is still just blaming workers; it’s a cop out.  When we can’t engage workers or manipulate their behaviors we blame complacency; we might as well blame worker stupidity or laziness.  That might help safety professionals sleep better at night, but it won’t make the workplace any safer. In the end it’s all just shame and blame rhetoric.

Filed under: Safety, ,

When it Comes to Safety the Surest Way to Lose Is to Think You’ve Won



By Phil La Duke

Injury rates are down, the safety function is running like a well-oiled machine and senior leadership is happy, so now you can relax right? Wrong.  If safety is the probability of injuries and we know that the risk of injury is never zero, then most of us understand that we have to remain vigilant in our efforts to create a workplace with the lowest possible risk…blah, blah, blah. But realistically do we really need to keep trying new initiatives after we have licked the biggest hitters in safety? Isn’t that just some academic argument? Well, yes and no.  In some cases, we truly can wind down some of our safety efforts.  After all, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be hyper-vigilant in workplaces where most of our hazards are well managed and quickly contained or corrected—that’s like continuing to look for your car keys after you’ve already found them (“where else MIGHT they have been but weren’t?”) Unfortunately, most of us aren’t working for organizations that are quite there yet and still have some work to do.

In fact, it’s highly unlikely that we will ever get there.  We tend to think as safety (and other business systems) as its own system when, in fact, all our business systems are interconnected in highly complex ways.  What’s worse is that all our business systems operate in a dynamic business climate and this continuously changing environment makes it impossible for us to ever pronounce the workplace permanently “safe”.


When we are confronted with a new situation we generally feel nervous, or tentative, or unsafe in some way.  Even the boldest among us is likely to exercise heighted care when first confronted with a new situation, but as we get used to the situation we become more comfortable. We acclimate to the changes and feel more comfortable taking what a less seasoned observer might describe as unwarranted or even reckless. This same process of acclimation that allows us to perform our jobs with greater levels of skill also puts us at higher levels of risk.

Over Confidence and Complacency

Many organizations fail to recognize that the hazards shift and evolve.  These organizations, reckoning that they have solved the safety puzzle become less vigilant.  It’s a dangerous phenomenon.  Hazards insidiously grow while the perception of danger diminishes, leaving the organization open to unexpected catastrophe. Some of you may be skeptical; it’s often difficult to accept that you may be losing ground when all indications are to the contrary. But as long as the work environment changes and your safety management system stays the same, you are at significant risk.  And the kinds of catastrophes that strike seem to come out of nowhere.


A key source of variation in organizations is turn over.  We talk a lot about the effects of employee turnover on the safety organizations (well at least I talk a lot about it) but one of the most destructive changes to the organization is executive turnover.  Executive turnover can throw the vision of the organization into a tailspin, but even moderate turnover at the middle of the organization can change the environment enough to cause variation sufficient to pose a significant hazard to the workplace.

 Disruptive Technology

A prime driver for change in an organization is disruptive technology.  Clayton M. Christensen Harvard Business School professor coined the term “Disruptive Technology” to describe a new technology that unexpectedly displaces an established technology. Most companies are successful because they have mastered sustaining technologies.  But disruptive technologies introduce hazards far beyond the changes brought by the technology itself.  Disruptive technology generally produces ripple effects that, owing to the organization’s lack of experience and familiarity with the nuanced nature of the new technology, can manifest in lethal hazards.


Drift is the natural tendency to move away from a standard or a norm.  When we drift we tend to believe that risks are justifiable and fairly benign—like driving a car and thinking yourself safe even though statistically the faster we drive and the longer we drive we will make dozens of poor choices, risky choices and errors.  Our subconscious minds experiment with ways in which we can drift from the norm; it makes us make mistakes to test the safety of quickly moving from one environment to the next. This process allows us to quickly adapt when our survival depends on it, but it also subjects us to the risk of injuries.

All these factors—from acclimation to drift—build to put us in harms way.  But the biggest thing we have to fear, isn’t, as FDR once said, “fear itself”, but the absence of fear.  We are often most at risk when we believe ourselves to be “safest”.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Performance Improvement, Phil La Duke, , , , , ,



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