Steve Mercer CSP, OHST, HSE Consultant at NASA, knows there are several signs of a company whose workers could be at risk of becoming complacent.

“There are many ways in which safety, operations, and production can gauge how a culture is doing in terms of combating safety complacency, beyond just a review of the Lost Time Injury (LTI) and Experience Modification Rate (EMR) rates in recent years. You can ask yourself: Do safety leaders—such as the operations manager, superintendent or general manager—take the time to walk with the on-site safety professionals? Or, if an incident occurred, and corporate staff conducted a review and came up with a list of items that could be incorporated into policy to prevent or to curb re-occurrence—were those changes actually implemented?” he says.

“And, another question: have other leaders in the organization listened to, or taken to heart the hazards that field personnel have brought to our attention—or have they just placed their suggestions into the back of their memory bank and gone on with their day?” says Mercer.

The answers to these questions can shed light on whether or not safety complacency could be an issue within your organization.

Let’s take a closer look at why fighting complacency matters, and what you can be sure you are doing to reduce complacency in the workplace.

What Is Safety Complacency?

Complacency is a state of mind where a worker is out of touch with the hazards and risks around them. Often times, complacency happens over time, where workers take the conditions or the context around the for granted.

For example, consider a worker who is so caught up in a regular routine each day, that he/she doesn’t notice cues around them that are out of the norm. These signs could be something that’s wrong with his/her equipment, or worse yet, it could be a more immediate threat that could put his/her in harm’s way. If someone is “going through the motions,” cutting corners on protocol, or almost in a “trance” on the job, you can see how they are potentially putting his/her life, and others’ lives, at risk.

All in all, complacency can be one of the most problematic mindsets that can contribute to injuries and incidents on the job.

So how can you move towards a culture where complacency isn’t a threat to workers? Here are 5 key steps to curb safety complacency:

1. Bring your company’s values to life.

Your organization likely has values, but are those values regularly shared, expanded upon, and even reinforced? If not, those values may not be truly understood or embraced by workers. This is one of the underlying issues that can contribute to a culture where people start to take things for granted and behave in ways that aren’t true to company standards.

Consider sharing examples of when employees successfully brought values to life. Have employees share stories and have them explain the decision-making and mindsets that went into the positive decisions they made.

On the other hand, if mistakes are made in the company that went against company values, you can share those so that employees can learn from those, too.

It’s easy for leaders to assume that workers know how to translate strongly-held values into appropriate, intentional behaviors. But take a step back and realize that’s not always the case for workers, especially when it comes to values involving safety, explains Mercer.

2. Mix up your routines.

One of the prime factors that contributes to complacency is too much regularity or routine. By nature, people can go into “autopilot” once something is a routine. Combat that by mixing up how you communicate with workers, how you educate them, and even workers’ schedules, environments, and tasks—as much as the job permits.

The same is true for safety management, too. “When was the last time managers actually reviewed field documentation?” says Mercer. “Does today, yesterday, last week, and last month’s documentation exude the same checks, marks, and verbiage?” If so, you could also be contributing to a culture of complacency.

Another example: be sure you, as a manager, are mixing up how you deliver feedback and how you help others learn on the job. “Have you made additional notes on your documentation with your recommendations for someone? Have you taken the time to record and discuss issues noted with the safety team as well as the individual employee and supervisor?” Add variety and mix up how you give feedback and input, so that it’s not seen as “just another recommendation,” says Mercer.

3. Increase workers’ self-awareness.

Self-awareness involves the ability to discern and “read” the environment around you. It also involves having a heightened sense of awareness where you can recognize the environment around you, but you are also aware of how you’re reacting and responding to that environment.

Having a high degree of self-awareness goes a long way in combating complacency because workers can “catch” when something is off, or when they notice they don’t have the right mindset.

Take the time to help workers grow their ability to become more self-aware. Self-awareness is a muscle that can grow and develop, after all. In general, the more proficient they can be in this area, the more skill they will have at recognizing signs of complacency and then taking action to fight it, explains Mercer.

4. Incorporate changes that allow workers to stay focused.

You can give employees the skills to become more self-aware and you can ask them to come to work with right mindset, but you also have to be sure the system and structure around them supports being present and mindful each day.

Take a look at the nature of their work and see where opportunities exist to change routines and to add meaningful variety.

One example, says Mercer, is that you can have workers observe, shadow, and learn from others on the job. This is one way to avoid routines, to teach and cross-train employees, and it helps to combat complacency since there is a bit of added accountability that can drive a renewed sense of focus, explains Mercer.

And again, another powerful weapon in this area is encouraging engagement through rewards and reinforcement. “I’ve always believed that at every level of an organization, employees should be recognized. Be sure you are acknowledging employees’ hard work and dedication,” he says.

“And, we can all agree that an employee at any level in the organization who is praised, recognized, and acknowledged will go above and beyond the call of duty, in most occasions, which includes being safer and keeping an eye out for their fellow employees.”

5. Teach and guide employees through coaching.

“Communication, coaching, and mentoring are always going to play a crucial role when it comes to overcoming complacency,” says Mercer.

Mercer’s tips for effective coaching to encourage safety and the right mindset:

  • Ask questions. One of the quickest ways you can see how someone is doing and how they are feeling is by asking them!
  • Make sure your message is clear. “The message you are helping to share should be simplistic, easily interpreted, and understood.” If a worker doesn’t seem to absorbing anything from your interactions, dig deeper.
  • Be consistent. Coaching an employee isn’t something that will transform behavior overnight. Commit to regular feedback and you’ll see positive change over time, says Mercer.
  • Show you have their back throughout the process. “As a manager, you’ll send a stronger message when safety, operations, and the production disciplines team-up together, and show unity,” he says.

Fighting a false sense of security in the workplace can be a day-to-day challenge. The goal is to provide workers with skills—so they can be focused, remain aware, and respond the right way—and structure, so that you can counteract complacency as much as possible. “After all, the choices we make today may save a co-worker’s life tomorrow,” says Mercer.

Avoid Complacency & Manage Risk

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