Dispelling the Complacency Myth

fatiguemanagement

By Phil La Duke 

The latest scape goat for injuries seems to be complacency. The latest in conventional By Phil La Dukewisdom holds that people get hurt because…well…they just need to be more careful. In fact, complacency is such a convenient villain that a major safety management system provider has built a business around it. The only problem is that many of the conditions described as worker complacency is anything but the case.

The dictionary definition of complacency, “1: self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies or 2: an instance of usually unaware or uninformed self-satisfaction”[1] which would imply that those who blame complacency for worker injuries believe that workers become over confident and therefore indifferent to the dangers around them. But according to an article on http://www.westfieldinsurance.com “complacency happens because workers, supervisors and management perform many functions on a continuous basis. Almost all jobs are repetitive in nature, and the more we repeat what we are doing, the better the chance at becoming complacent without even realizing it. Therein lays the potential danger”. It would appear that in the author’s view, complacency in the workplace is more akin to over confidence than true complacency.

Finding complacency as a root cause, in my opinion, is just another in a long line of “blame-the-injured” cop outs. If we accept the explanation offered by the article on Westfield Insurance’s website (no author is credited) complacency develops as people become indifferent to the dangers after doing repetitive tasks for hours. The answer, therefore, is to find a way to force people to pay closer attention to the tasks at hand. Unfortunately, such an approach is not necessarily supported by science.

I am not prepared to say that overconfidence and a corresponding desensitization to dangers as one spends more time in close proximity with at risk conditions isn’t a key factor in workplace injuries, but I am always a bit suspicious when safety professionals “discover” the next big injury cause. Certainly people will get complacent and over confident, but there are also other factors at play.

Mental Fatigue

If people are getting harmed because they are overconfident and take short cuts it makes sense that keeping the workers mind on task would make the most sense, but research in the physiology of the human brain[2][3] shows that intense concentration on a repetitive task causes mental fatigue, and the longer the period of time one spends intensely concentrating the greater the fatigue, and the greater the fatigue the higher the likelihood of human error[4] and the corresponding increase in the risk of worker injury.

This creates a quandary for the safety professional─ not enough focus on the task at hand and workers put their safety at risk, but too much concentration on a task also puts them at risk. What’s worse is that in the middle is behavioral drift (the practice of slowly and subconsciously moving away from the standard operating procedure.[5]

How Much Concentration Is Too Much?

Boksem, et el, found that mental fatigue was evident within one hour of intense concentration and other studies have found that moderate mental fatigue can impair judgement[6] . Mental fatigue (or sleep deprivation) leads to:

  • Impeded judgment. Fatigue impedes the worker’s judgment and reasoning ability so attempts to get workers to concentrate may actually be increasing poor decision making.
  • Lack of manual dexterity.  A loss of mental acuity because of fatigue has been shown to decrease people’s manual dexterity; assuming that the job requires some level of manual dexterity fatigue leads to greater risk of everything from slips trips and falls to the proper use of tools and even PPE.
  • Lack of alertness. Invariably, the brain will fight any efforts to maintain prolonged concentration on a task and fatigued workers may become groggy and absent-minded.
  • Diminished ability to focus on details. A fatigued worker is far more likely to miss critical steps in a process, and when a worker is working out of process he or she is far more likely to be injured.

Multiple sources list fatigue as one of the top five causal factors in workplace incidents[7] so while experts may attribute upward of 90% of workplace injuries to unsafe behaviour, most fail to answer the question of why a worker behaved unsafely. Increasingly, that answer is linked to a fatigue.

If one hour of concentration on a task is enough to increase the risk of worker injuries that how much more risk is there to workers who are working longer hours. Research has found[8] an 88% increased risk of an incident for individuals working more than 64 hours a week.

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

So it boils down to this: workers who don’t pay enough attention to the task at hand are at far greater risk of injury, but workers who pay too much attention to the task at hand are at even greater risk. It would be easy to either suggest unworkable solutions (a ten minute break every ten minutes, for example) but even if these techniques were enough (and research has shown that returning to a non-fatigued state where performance returned to normal are difficult and time consuming[9]). In effect, there is no practical solution to eliminating the risk of complacency, behavioral drift, or mental fatigue. We can’t ─ no matter how hard we try ─ eliminate human error and risk taking so we should instead focus our efforts on mistake proofing. We need to channel more of our energy into protecting people from their mistakes instead of trying to reengineer the human animal.

[1] Merriam Webster On-line Dictionary

[2] Effects of mental fatigue on attention: An ERP study, Maarten A.S. Boksem, Theo F. Meijman,Monicque M. Lorist

[3] Mental fatigue, motivation and action monitoring Maarten A.S. Boksema, Theo F. Meijmana, Monicque M. Lorista,

[4] Whack A Mole Marx, David

[5] For more interesting facts about behavioral drift, see Behavioral Drift’ Threatens the Safety of Flight Operations http://www.nbaa.org/ops/safety/20130909-behavioral-drift-threatens-the-safety-of-flight-operations.php

[6] For more information on the effects of fatigue on workplace safety see my article, Asleep on the Job Published: 19th Mar 2014 in Health and Safety International

[7] Chan, 2010

[8] Vegso et al (2007)

[9] Environmental Influences on Psychological Restoration, Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 1996, Hartig, Terry, Gook, Ands, Garvill, Jorgen, Olsson, Tommy, and Garling, Tommy

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