Beware the Grim Reaper of Complacency
Special thanks to The Leader/VPPPA magazine for publishing this article in the Spring 2016 issue.
When I heard mention of “The Grim Reaper of Complacency",* it struck a chord in me especially considering my line of work as a safety officer and rescue instructor. In working at height, complacency is something we warn students about continually. However, when it comes to our personal safety, it can happen to all of us. No one is immune to complacency, and its effects can be devastating depending on the nature of the work being performed.
It is also not my intention to get up on a high horse and preach to you about your individual faults or shortcomings in your work or safety practices. As I said, we are ALL guilty of becoming complacent to some degree, and my hope is to remind you of that very fact so that you can find some tools that work for you to help you stay out of that grim reaper’s grip.
There are so many factors that can lead us to become complacent. Routine work tasks and outcomes, assuming that we are doing things as safely as possible, self and team satisfaction, overconfidence, the attitude that it “won’t happen to me,” contentment, unrealistic deadlines, multi-tasking, high stress, low morale, and fatigue are just some of the primary and cumulative factors that may lead to complacency. In addition to these influences, the complacent behavior of others can be infectious and possibly cause you to think – if it’s ok for them to take shortcuts, it’s ok for me to do the same.
Without quoting statistics, I can say with confidence that the overwhelming majority of workplace accidents are not caused by unsafe equipment or processes, but are indeed caused by unsafe worker behavior. And complacency, in its many forms, is at the root of that behavior.
Probably the most important thing that I would like for you to gain from reading this is to recognize those moments when complacency is creeping in and stop it in its tracks! Complacency places us in an emotional state where we become oblivious to danger, and therein lays its insidious nature. I will not pretend to give you all the tools you may need to beat complacency, as different tools are required for different folks for different situations. Again, the most important piece of the solution is to recognize complacency’s onset, and the second most important is to understand the potential outcome if you were to succumb to it.
Here’s one early sign that complacency is creeping in – you find yourself distracted while performing your job. This applies not only to individual workers, but in a more global sense can happen within the company culture. When worries start to crop up, be it individual workers, or within management, the focus may center on issues other than the task at hand. When you feel this happening, stop and evaluate whether you are paying the required attention to the task at hand; and if you are not, what could the possible consequences be? Think worst case, because that is quite likely the end result!
Look for instances where you catch a misstep in your performance that you normally would not have made. For example, in my line of work as a rescuer, I’ve always used a systematic safety check of a rescue system before life loading. Once in a while I might find an unlocked carabiner, that’s one thing, but if I find that unlocked carabiner at the conclusion of the rescue scenario, that, my friend, is a red flag! My tried-and-true system failed me for one reason and one reason only…I became complacent.
Talk about the perfectly designed distraction – cell phones – you can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them. I like to call my TV set a “one-eyed-brain sucker,” and fondly refer to my cell phone as a “hand-held brain sucker.” There is a time and a place for it – and, yes they are very valuable, but if you find it has any chance of distracting you from your work and can be the cause of an unsafe condition, tighten up, don’t be complacent! Put that cell phone away until you can use it safely.
Here’s another example – observing your co-workers complacency and not addressing it. That’s being just as complacent. And worse, if an accident were to happen and your co-worker’s complacency caused them harm or harmed others, you will have to live with that missed chance to have stopped it. Fight the good fight. No one can fault you for that, and if they do, they are flat wrong.
“The Devil’s Circle” is a term I learned from a group of Austrian mountaineers many years ago. It goes something like this. During a climbing expedition, you evaluated a slope for avalanche and determined there is a high potential for a slide. But the weather is closing in and you would have a more dangerous situation if you were to retreat the way you came versus crossing the avalanche slope to the safety of a protected camp site. You made it across the slope without triggering an avalanche.
The very next season, you were confronted with a nearly identical situation, but with the added factor that you forgot your avalanche shovels. Based on the safe outcome of the previous year, however, you went ahead and crossed the slope. Again, without incident. And the circle begins. As the years go by and you encounter the same situations and have the same results without incidence even in the presence of adding more and more unsafe conditions, the Devil’s Circle is lulling you into a false sense of security.
The circle turns every year without an accident and you push the envelope of safety further for every lap of the circle you make – until your complacent behavior ultimately catches up to you and the avalanche occurs. You have no shovels to dig your climbing partners out, you have no avalanche beacons to locate them, you have no means to radio for help and you haven’t told anyone of your planned route. The many laps you have made along the circle with many unsafe mistakes while thinking you got away with them in the past so you’ll get away with them in the future – all of this has led to an unrecoverable disaster.
Avoiding complacency is not automatic. We need to understand that it is always lurking, waiting to walk through that door you left open and to exert its sometimes very dire effects. And it isn’t like in the movies where it warns you of impending disaster by changing the music to the “Jaws” theme of dun tunt, Dun Tunt, DUN TUNT!, DUN TUNT!!! We need to remain alert for the signs of complacency, recognize when it is setting in and do whatever we must do to stop it. And it’s not only a personal challenge to stop it within ourselves, but to recognize and stop it within our co-workers.
Here are just a few ideas that you may want to use to avoid complacency.
- 1. Perform a Job Safety Analysis (JSA) before starting a task. And don’t limit this to new tasks only. You might surprise yourself by taking the time to re-accomplish a JSA on a task that you routinely perform. By breaking a task down into individual steps and isolating the hazards that are associated with each step as well as how to mitigate them, you will oftentimes realize that there is a safer way that you have been missing. Performing the JSA will also refocus you and your crew on the fact that there are hazards present and that you must be diligent in protecting yourselves from them.
- 2. Take a minute to refocus on the hazards of the task at hand before starting. That brief pause goes a very long way in reminding you that what you are about to take on requires a level of focus that will ultimately prevent you from making a mistake.
- 3. Report all near misses. This is the often forgotten final opportunity to share information that reminds us that many of us at times can have dangerous jobs. “Scared Straight!!”
- 4. Challenge yourself and your co-workers to stay in the moment. Everyone wants to shine and no one wants to let the team down, so just remind each other occasionally.
- 5. Develop new habits. Think about any and all the near misses you may have had or some you may have heard from your co-workers. Is there something that could have been done to have averted that close call? If so, share that information and practice the step(s) you would employ to avoid it going beyond a near miss.
- 6. Actively decide to act. Hopefully deciding to do the task in a safe manner, but the point is, don’t act on auto-pilot. Instead, stop, evaluate the course you are about to take, and then “DECIDE” to proceed or not.
- 7. If you say to yourself, “I need to remember to do this,” and it’s a critical step in ensuring safety, is it enough to rely on your memory or should you create some type of reminder? This may be your last chance, so take action to make sure you do include that critical step.
Finally, in order to avoid complacent behavior that may lead to an accident, we must first accept that we are all prone to complacency – it’s human nature. The next step is to recognize when you are on a path to complacency.
To help put the consequences into perspective, stop and ask yourself, “What is the worst case outcome of my complacency while performing this task?”
And yes, this exercise is to help you realize that many of us are in a very serious business and people can get seriously hurt or worse. Then, find out if any of the tools I have listed above may work for you in the setting you are engaged in. There are many more tools, so find the ones that work and practice them. It’s a great habit to get into – and when that habit feels too routine, avoid complacency once again by finding yet another tool. Keep it new, keep it top-of-mind and keep it safe!