Complacency Kills: The Dangers of Complacency in the Workplace

Complacency Kills: The Dangers of Complacency in the Workplace

The word "complacency" doesn't exactly strike fear into anyone's heart. It doesn't sound like an active threat to anyone's health or safety. But when it comes to workplace safety, that's a dangerously inaccurate understanding of what can happen when everyone is a little too comfortable with job-related risks.

Because safety complacency could be killer.

What is Complacency in the Safety Industry?

In workplace safety, complacency is a mindset where you become comfortable with an existing situation and stop looking for potential hazards.

The most familiar example to most people is the way you go on autopilot during your commute. If nothing goes wrong, you may not even remember the drive. If something goes wrong, you may be so checked out that you don't see the danger in time to avoid it.

What Causes Complacency?

Any one thing doesn't cause complacency, but there are a lot of common contributors.

For individuals, a personal sense of safety complacency can result from:

  • Familiar, routine, and repetitive tasks that don't require active problem solving
  • A long track record where nothing has gone wrong (or almost gone wrong)

At an organizational level, complacency can come from:

  • A safety program that was phased out once it "worked."
  • A belief that existing workplace safety measures are successful as-is
  • The prioritization of productivity, efficiency, or cost reduction over safety

The Dangers of Complacency In The Workplace

The problem with complacency is that it's the definition of a silent killer, meaning the severity of the hazard is invisible before things go wrong. Complacent behavior doesn't necessarily look deadly so the consequences can catch you by surprise.

There are a few ways complacency could be killer.

First, you can gain a false sense of security about the risks when you perform dangerous tasks repeatedly without incident. Maybe your safety measures are effective, but perhaps you're just lucky. Either way, you can start to believe that the chances are less severe or that you have them under control. You might begin taking more significant risks because you feel your safety is a permanent trait rather than something you have to earn daily.

This false sense of security can also result in you allowing your mind to wander. You might start going through the motions of your task while paying less and less attention. You tune out and live in your little world.

This is a problem because, in the words of one safety trailblazer, "Safety is something that happens between your ears, not something you hold in your hands."

Being less attentive can lead to mistakes, missed steps, or sloppily executed safety protocols. Maybe you forget to put on safety glasses or hook yourself into the fall arrest system. Perhaps you stop using a safety checklist or ignore whether each item is completed. When you do something over and over, it can be easy to assume specific steps have been taken or mix up what was done today with something done yesterday.

Finally, inattentiveness and a false sense of security can cause you to overlook specific hazards. Either you become numb to the severity of a danger you see, or you're so used to things being the same that you don't look for changes in your environment, or your mind is on other matters, so you fail to notice when something goes wrong.

Any of these aspects of complacency can result in a disastrous mistake for the health or safety of yourself or your coworkers. If you're lucky, you'll get a warning in the form of a near miss as a wake-up call. If you're not – or if your entire organization has become so complacent that the problem is systemic – you may not recognize the problem until someone is hurt.

But how do you know if your organization – or specific individuals within it – are at risk due to safety complacency?

Examples of Complacency and Workplace Safety

Complacency is a mindset, and you can see examples of its result – complacent behavior – at both the individual and organizational levels.

Examples of complacency at the individual level can include:

  • Taking shortcuts with safety protocols
  • An increase in risky behavior and near misses
  • A lack of concern or initiative for their work

Examples of complacency at the organizational level can include:

  • A missing or inactive Safety Management System
  • Compliance with safety regulations and little else
  • Weak or reactive risk control, like supervisors failing to audit workplace safety regularly
  • A lack of willingness to consider safety concerns, the need for improvement, or the existence of systemic problems
  • Safety investigations that focus on individual fault or confirm a lack of systemic fault
  • A habit of explaining away safety concerns
  • Only seeking data that ensures the safety program's success

How Do You Combat Safety Complacency?

The quickest way to reduce complacency and workplace safety is to shake up safety routines and put safe work practices in everyone's mind.

You can do both at the same time with more frequent safety training.

One popular way to do this is weekly – or even daily – toolbox talks. A toolbox talk is a short, informal training session focused on practical application.

The idea is that you take 15 minutes at the beginning of a shift to discuss safety topics that are immediately relevant to the day's tasks or existing safety concerns. It's best if they're more of a discussion than a lecture, and you can make them, even more engaging by having key workers take turns leading each session.

Another approach to consider is more frequent formal safety training. If you're only complying with the letter of the law, safety training is required once a year at most (and often less). An internal policy requiring frequent refreshers can keep the risks and regulations fresh.

As an OSHA-authorized provider, we've got a vast catalog of online safety training, from OSHA to DOT, SST, USACE, and much more. We also have group enrollment rates and a free learning management system for assigning and delivering courses.

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