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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“Complacency” Is Just More Shame and Blame Rhetoric

photo compliments of

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.

#complacency, #worker-complacency

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”.

#acclimation, #complacency, #feeling-safe-versus-being-safe, #over-confidence, #turnover, #worker-safety