Shortcut to an Accident

We look at how focusing on creating safe working habits could be the best way to ensure low accident levels

Rookies make mistakes

Anyone who watched the recent TV adaptation of Catch-22 would have been shocked when the rookie was killed on his first mission. But this is often what happens in war zones. If you can survive your first week you are more likely to survive in the long term.

That is if you can avoid adopting any bad habits.

During the two world wars and in every war since, troops new to the front-line dive for cover at the first indication of attack. Yet, their more experienced colleagues carry-on regardless with some sort of fifth sense of when they are in immediate danger.

The more experienced the soldier is the less likely they are to be injured. The same is true in the work place. Experienced workers tend to have fewer accidents.

Experience is no protection

However, no matter how experienced a soldier or a worker is there is no cause for complacency.

Experienced workers get injured because they

  • Ignore risks
  • Disregard safety rules
  • Develop bad habits that put them at risk
  • Start to believe that it hasn’t happened, so it is not likely to happen

Ignorance isn’t bliss

New workers are ignorant of the risks in a new work place and the risks associated with a new job.

This makes them at a greater risk of a work place injury.

It also means that they are more alert to the risks and therefore more likely to follow the correct safety processes if these are explained to them before they start a new job in a new environment.

Experienced worker accidents

Experienced workers do have accidents that result in both injuries and loss of life, that can leave colleagues and managers bewildered and wondering how the accident happened.

There really is no reason for any shaking of heads in disbelief, experienced workers have accidents because they

  • take serious safety short-cuts,
  • remove guards,
  • fail to follow lockout/tag-out, or
  • ignore warning bells and whistles.

Psychologists call this habituation

It is a primitive response that can be demonstrated in the natural world involves tortoises.

Tap the shell of a tortoise whilst it has it’s head out and it will withdraw quickly into its shell. After several minutes it will start to re-emerge.

If you then repeat the tap on the shell it will hide inside its shell again. If every time the tortoise re-emerges you repeat the tapping the length of time that it stays inside its shell will gradually reduce.

For the tortoise retreating inside its shell is a defensive move. If the tapping is not followed by other aggressive behaviour the tortoise will not feel under attack and will gradually belief that the tapping does not indicate danger and eventually ignore the risk of danger.

Psychologists describe this as the tortoise has become habituated to an interference that contradicts its natural instinct.

This habituation is a consistent phenomenon across nature. If there is no obvious consequence (good or bad), from responding to a stimulus, the soldier, tortoise, or employee—stops reacting to it.

No consequence of no reaction

It is a waste of time and energy to continue respond to a catalyst if there is consequence of not reacting.

The tortoise will never get enough to eat if it reacts by hiding every time it hears the rustle of grass across its shell.

The soldier will never be able to fight the enemy if all it takes to make him dive for cover is a loud noise.

The worker will never get any work done, if he stops and goes into a defensive position each time, he hears equipment start up around him.

We learn to assess risks

Our daily lives are full of distractions.

An office worker in the centre of London learns to ignore the sirens and other noises that are part of living and working in a city, but they distract their home-based colleague who is visiting from the countryside.

If the city worker did not learn to ignore voices, radios, traffic and machinery in your work area they would not be able to work. These background noises eventually become insignificant and have little power to divert their attention.

Habituation and safety

While it is natural to habituate to everyday activators that are not supported by consequences, this unfortunately includes safety warning devices.

Remaining attentive to safety activators—warning signs, flashing lights, beepers, bells—is a continuous fight with habituation.

Consider the warning emitted by a reversing delivery truck.

The warning “beep” has given the driver a false sense of security.

They assume that the warning beeper is sufficient to tell any workers in the danger area to move away.

They feel less need to check for pedestrians in their blind area.

At the same time, the worker has become habituated to the sound.

They ignore the familiar beep, as they know that the driver of a vehicle that is beeping is proceeding cautiously and checking for pedestrians.

There is a lot of assuming going on because of the habituation.

The bleep and the assumptions that both the driver and the pedestrian worker make reduce their perception of the risk in their mutual situation and contribute to them both increasing the risk that they both face.

Key Lesson

The key lesson is to avoid becoming over-reliant on activators.

There is no substitute for safe work procedures that avoid at-risk behaviours by all workers.

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