March 7, 2018

Complacency vs. Chronic Unease: What is your Safety Culture?

Then vs Now
It is well understood by anyone that has ever worked in heavy industry like construction, mining, high voltage electricity or oil and gas that someone with twenty years’ experience under their belt will have a better understanding of the risks in their work than a “green horn” who has just walked in on their first day. For example, it is recommended that Risk Assessments are conducted with the people who are considered experts in their field – you can’t become an expert after only working in that position for a week.
But there are two sides to that coin. After twenty years of experience you can become complacent and blindsided to the risks that your job presents every day.
Don’t Risk becoming Complacent
Work Health and Safety professionals often hear the reason for not changing to a safer way of doing things is because “that’s the way it’s always been done!” This was the reason given recently at a community pool to a teenage daughter of a friend of mine, who works as a lifesaver there (names and locations withheld), when she told management that she had been feeling nauseous and dizzy after a 5-hour shift. She and her young co-workers knew that the cause of her symptoms was the chemical storage next to the kiosk, where the lifeguards and kiosk workers spent most of their day. What she specifically didn’t know was that it was the careless decanting and the incorrect storage of hazardous chemicals in the adjoining “Decant Room” (the way that they had always been stored and decanted) that was the cause of her discomfort. Chemicals classed as Class 2 Gases (compressed, liquefied or dissolved under pressure) were stored openly next to flammable liquids (Class 3). Chlorine should never be stored with ammonia, for example, because they are incompatible. Dangerous vapours were freely circulated by air conditioning vents next to the kiosk.
The swimming pool and community centre had been audited by safety regulators the week before and given the green light for being compliant with chemical storage so how could a 19-year old know better? That’s the way the management of the swimming pool had been storing chemicals for years! It was only after she collapsed and was finally admitted to hospital after working another 5-hour shift that it was finally investigated. You would think that the safety auditors would have picked this up but perhaps they, too, had become complacent.
Complacency is dangerous. It is the cause of car accidents where people are texting and driving. It is also the cause of many “near misses” and work accidents where people have become blinded to the fact that what a new person might think is dangerous or risky, is really just the way they have been doing things for twenty years!
Complacency is insidious because it is difficult to identify. It is not visible like poor housekeeping and it is not measurable like the number of recordable injuries a site may have. To combat complacency, many industries are now embracing chronic unease in their work culture to ensure that their workforce remains vigilant about risks that can harm people.
Defining Chronic Unease
Chronic unease refers to the experience of discomfort and concern about the management of risks. This means that managers may feel unease when it comes to thinking about how to manage risks, and how to manage them well. James Reason, author of Safety Paradoxes and Safety Culture, wrote that “If an organisation is convinced that it has achieved a safe culture, it almost certainly has not. Safety culture…is a product of continual striving”.
A cataclysmic example of chronic unease in action was the explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Mexican Gulf in 2010. The results were 11 deaths and 17 severe injuries, and the event was recorded to be the largest environmental disaster in US history; just as BP and Transocean executives were on board to celebrate seven years without a lost-time incident. This case continues to clearly illustrate that an organisation can become complacent about its safety culture, and how the impact of this complacency was to have devastating consequences.
This also highlights the importance of conducting a root cause analysis, to have clear visibility over the risk landscape. In this case, starting with answering some questions leads to analyse the situation in retrospect. How could such well-trained experts make decisions that, in retrospect, appear so deeply flawed? Why didn’t they see the disaster coming or stop it in time? Identifying what can be done differently and what measures can be put in place to ensure the same hazards and risks don’t become increased fatality and injury rates, is a vital part of managing not only chronic unease but also risk prevention.
If these executives had acted with chronic unease and been vigilant in asking valid safety questions of the crew they visited, they might have noticed the serious warning signs that were evident hours prior to the blowout.
Characteristics of Chronic Unease
There are five characteristics of chronic unease, which include:
  1. Safety Imagination: The ability to visualise the trajectory of a situation into the future
  2. Pessimism: A tendency to resist complacency and anticipate failure
  3. Vigilance: The ability to identify hidden and not-so-obvious risks in the workplace
  4. Worry: Tendency to worry about risk and safety
  5. Experience: Anyone who has ever been near to or involved in an incident will never have to be convinced about the virtue of being chronically uneasy!
What you can do
What is your organisation’s safety culture?
Is it predominantly complacent?
Or does management continually look to improve their safety by being vigilant about not falling into the trap of complacency?
Now that you know what signs to look out for, you can listen to what people have to say about safety at work with these questions in mind. Challenge the notion of ‘this is how things have always been done’, and look forwards to a better safety culture.
Gaynor Renz, WHSE Compliance and Risk Expert, WorkPac/BHP
Gaynor has a strong background in WHS, Risk and Compliance, with many years in mining, construction, fabrication and utilities (electricity) and prior to that, a solid background in compliance and leadership positions in the education and training sector. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Education, Diploma in Work Health and Safety, Cert IV in WHS and Training and Assessment and a Graduate Diploma in Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) completed with Dr Rob Long in Canberra. She continues to study SPoR in Master Classes held by the Centre for Leadership and Learning and Risk (CLLR). Currently she is working in multi-million dollar mining projects as a WHS and Risk Consultant.

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