The Lie of Complacency

by Phil La Duke


In this week’s post, I was going to continue exploring the antecedent processes that organizations must manage if they hope to ensure safe outcomes, but I got distracted by a recent contention by a leading vendor of safety training that 80% of all injuries are caused by complacency. I have been hearing this more and more lately and it is driving me nuts. First of all, I question the basis for that contention. Several sources claim to have reached this conclusion based on research, but I suspect that they know about the scientific method as I do about piloting a zeppelin, which is to say zilch.

What is the Ahabesque obsession that safety people have with finding the single cause (or the most common cause) of injuries? The cynic in me wants to point out that companies whose business model depends on the perpetuation of a given hypothesis are likely to preserve it at all costs, but I think it goes deeper than that.

To begin with there is the real problem that most of these people have differentiating between qualitative and quantitative data; it’s a problem that used to be common in the quality function. Qualitative data is measured while quantitative data is counted. When we talk about the cause of injuries we need to consider qualitative data not quantitative data, in other words, it doesn’t matter what the most common cause of injuries are, what matters is what is the most serious threat to workers. Let me give you an example, the following chart represents the locations on the site that have the most injuries:

 injuries pareto

If you look at this chart it is easy to assume that your efforts should be spent at the Memphis facility, but because this is quantitative (counted) data and not qualitative (measured) data we aren’t making informed decisions. What if , for example, the injuries at the Memphis facility are predominately first aid cases, but the Charlotte facility are predominately fatalities? Does it still make sense to attack first aid cases or is it smarter to address the problems at the Charlotte facility?

So even if complacency is the cause of 80% of worker injuries (and PLEASE share with us the industry, country, time period, research methods, population, culture, etc. that these studies on which this conclusion was made), it doesn’t mean that attacking complacency alone will solve the problem, because what percent of our injuries are relatively minor and what percentage are killing people?

But specifically the idea that complacency is the primary cause of injuries is problematic. This company and those like them, would you have believe that there is one overwhelmingly widespread cause that transcends all industries, worksites, and environments is ludicrous to the extreme, and convenient if you are selling a methodology that is based on this specious argument.

Why am I so suspicious? Well let’s start with the definition of “complacency”. According to “complacency” is 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. Is this really 80% of the causes of injuries? Are people dying from exposure to poison gases because they are smugly satisfied? Are workers being maimed because they feel comfortable doing their jobs? Who thinks up this softheaded rhetoric and successfully builds a billion dollar industry around it? And what is wrong with us that we so blithely buy this snake oil? To quote Kermit the Frog, “Somebody thought of that and someone believed it and look what we’ve done so far” of course Kermit was talking about wishing on stars, but he might as well have been talking about the latest safety methodology.

Another element that works against this thinking is the assumption that our anecdotal experiences and observations are universal. Once again, this is great for companies who sell a single tool solution (or single premise) but for those of us who are on the receiving end it can be lethal or even fatal. As I pointed out in my post about Lone Gunman safety, we have to as a profession accept that there are multiple causes for injuries and the more we look for that single cause the more we delude ourselves into thinking that there is some kind of magic bullet solution.

Injuring workers is a complex problem and we have to resist the temptation to get sucked into some con game where a slick-talking salesman convinces us that we only have to…and all our problems will be solved.

Beyond all that let us suppose that complacency really is this hidden killer, what are we to do about it? Awareness campaigns? I used to work in the nuclear industry and knew plenty of people who grew complacent with the dangers of exposure to radioactivity, but they still didn’t take chances or short cuts. An awareness campaign or retraining them would have made no difference—the opposite of complacency isn’t awareness it’s anxiety. So would the people preaching that the greatest threat to worker safety is complacency really suggest that we increase the anxiety of the worker? Would they have us believe that a stressed and worried worker is safer than one who is relatively relaxed? Keep in mind that a stressed out worker is far more likely to commit errors and take unnecessary risks than the worker who is not stressed out. Add to that the stress produced by constantly reminding people to pay attention or to stay focused and you have people adding risk to the process in the name of safety.

Complacency is a danger on one way—complacent safety professionals who think they are doing a better job than they are. If complacency is responsible for 80% of injuries, maybe it’s the complacency of the safety practitioner.


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