“We all make personal risk assessments each day—and it doesn’t seem to matter how intelligent or experienced we are, there is a lot of variability in the quality of those assessments, says Gary Higbee, President/CEO of Higbee & Associates, Inc. and Senior Global Consultant with SafeStart.

Gary is one of the most experienced and recognized consultants within the safety industry.

He’s earned numerous awards and he has held seats on many industry advisory boards. Prior to his current work, he spent more than three decades at John Deere & Company, where he held assignments in safety, environmental, production, and engineering.At one of his recent speaking engagements in Texas, Gary noticed a great example of human behavior as it relates to risk and individual risk perception.

As people would leave the exhibit hall and cross the street each day, they would turn right on the side walk and head down the street.

They would come upon at pedestrian stop light aimed at keeping pedestrians safe from cars that might be exiting the nearby garage.

The problem is, with this particular light, it wasn’t working as it should—at least, it remained red for a substantial amount of time. Rarely would the stop light change to green. Instead, it would stay red for a great deal of time before ever changing to signal to pedestrians it was safe to walk.

To make things more confusing, it was also an audio warning saying, “WAIT” repeatedly.

At the same time, the garage wasn’t that busy, so people could see no cars were coming and were regularly ignoring the pedestrian light.

“So here I was, at a safety conference, and all of the safety professionals are going ahead, and walking by me after barely pausing and not being obedient to the stop light,” Gary says.

Gary could understand where people were coming from; after all, the light wasn’t working as it should, and it would be ridiculous to wait forever when no cars were in sight.

“It’s an example of how, at times, many of the safety devices, systems, rules, policies, and procedures don’t always make sense to us as individuals. And then, we do our own risk assessment, and we go ahead and react. We then do what we feel like doing,” says Gary.

In this example, the first time you cross the garage opening when the light is signaling you to wait, you are intentionally taking on that risk, says Gary.

You’re well aware that you could be putting yourself in danger, but you’re doing a quick assessment, and you believe you can cross before any cars come out of the garage.

Imagine if you passed this stop light every day. Over time, you become less aware that you are taking on that risk.

In fact, you can actually become numb to the kind of risk you may be taking on, explains Gary.

Eventually, you begin to ignore the safety precaution at that intersection, and it’s just habit to cross.

It’s an example of how we can slowly go from intentional risk, with high awareness, to a habitual risk, with very little awareness. This movement from intentional risk, with high awareness, to habitual risk, with limited awareness, is actually one of the things that can cause people to have a serious injury or make a serious error.

This is just one kind of state of mind—a form of complacency—that can affect our safety.

“Many ‘states of mind’ can affect someone’s performance, although none seems to have the breadth and depth of complacency,” explains Gary. “Complacency increases risk significantly, and more worryingly, it also changes the perceived risk dramatically.” Let’s continue to examine this idea.

The 3 Types of Risk

SafeStart’s at-risk behaviorial model breaks down three types of at-risk behavior:

1. Intentional. This is when a person recognizes and knows both the risks and the benefits of doing a task, and they go ahead and take that risk. They make the decision that the benefits of breaking procedure or breaking rules (taking the risk) outweigh the risks, explains Gary.

In our previous example, this is when someone first decided to cross the street after assessing the situation, believing they are going to be okay by ignoring the red light.

“Even if people are deliberately willing to increase the risk of a situation, hardly any of them are deliberately trying to get hurt. The interesting thing about intentional at-risk behavior is that if the intentional risk continues to be accompanied with high awareness and alertness, the injuries are infrequent,” Gary adds.

2. Unintentional. This is when someone is not aware of the right procedure or the safe way to do something; in other words, they aren’t aware of the risks at hand. It could be a lack of training or a lack of experience. It could also be as simple as not looking before moving or failing to look before touching something.

3. Habitual. This person knows the risks, but they’ve been taking the risks for so long, they are not alert to the fact they are taking a risk.

“Once a high-risk task moves to habitual, that is when complacency has set in,” adds Gary.

To know more about how we can chip away at this kind of “overconfidence,” in our next blog we’ll take a closer look at risk patterns that are involved in most injuries.

After that, we’ll dig deeper into how we can develop “habit strength” for safe and healthy behaviors.

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Learn more about Higbee & Associates here.

Learn more about SafeStart here.

Source used throughout this blog post:

1. https://www.higbeeandassociates.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/workplace-complacency-reduction-techniques.pdf