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
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. (Dictionary.com)
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.