For Employee Safety, Complacency Requires Special Attention

While catching up on a pile of reading material, a recent piece on employee safety caught my attention.

The author, Sharon Lipinski, is CEO of Habit Mastery Consulting and a widely respected safety and health consultant to businesses and other organizations. In a peer-reviewed research report, “Understanding the Biological Basis of Complacency,” she presents a new perspective on why hazards occur with repeated, habitual tasks.

Complacency, she writes, is not inattention or laziness, as many occupational safety and health professionals believe it to be. “It is a by-product of a neural pathway deep in the brain, isolated from much of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) activity essential for external awareness and sensitivity to hazards,” writes Lipinski.

According to Lipinski, complacency is an unavoidable risk factor that can be managed but not eliminated and offers these tips for managing complacency.

Use Repetition Strategically

Repetition is important, as is the quality of that repetition. In the workplace, many desired behaviors should be practiced until neural pathways are created and employees no longer need to think about what they should do or whether they should do it. The U.S. Army’s mantra is clear: “We don’t practice until we get it right, we practice until we can’t get it wrong.” Practicing builds necessary neural pathways.

Support Your Most Experienced Employees

The more experienced an employee is with a specific activity, the more easily that person’s brain relies on neural wiring shortcuts, leaving them less aware of potential hazards. In other words, the most experienced and valuable employees are at the greatest risk of complacency and need the most resources and strategies to avoid this hazard.

Reduce Repetitive Tasks

Interestingly, complacency can often work in favor of the employee productivity and therefore in favor of the company, but too much complacent repetition can also lead to the risk of fully zoning out leading to unsafe work. One way to limit the risk of complacency is to ensure that the more repetitive the task, the shorter the amount of time an employee should spend continuously doing that activity without productive interruptions.  Examples of productive interruptions can range from wellness-related activities (like stretching or taking a short walk) to safety-reinforcing activities like passing a quiz.

“Successfully combatting complacency starts by understanding that the root cause of complacency is how the brain handles repetitive behavior,” Lipinski writes. “In other words, complacency is a byproduct of habit.”  Given this information, you can easily see how a properly built employee engagement solution is critical both to productivity and safety.

At All Star Incentive Marketing, we collaborate with clients to create a safe, positive, and healthy work environment, encouraging safety consciousness and promoting wellness throughout the workforce. We partner with safety-conscious companies to understand what needs to change, including complacency, and develop a customized safety program to motivate behaviors toward those goals.

Brian Galonek


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