Safety Conscious as a Business Model

by Dave Lester

All accidents have a chain of events that precede them and in this chain there are multiple contributing factors. One of the contributing factors is the human process of thinking, decision-making, and the resulting actions. Becoming more conscious of this is a catalyst for change. To ignite this catalyst a few questions should be asked: What influences our thoughts and thinking to create unsafe situations? How will we respond under duress or in a moment of crisis? And what practices and methods can be implemented to better prepare us to make the right decisions in the moment of crisis or duress?

As individuals, how much do we know about our own mental process and the resulting actions? Our cognitive function is complex and our thinking is influenced and affected by many things such as stress and bias.

Research shows stress causes changes in chemical makeup of our brain. When we encounter a crisis or are under duress, stress hormones are released leading to diminished cognitive capacity and unexpected behavior. This may contribute to an accident. Most of us have experienced the effects stress has on our ability to think and react. Our thinking becomes narrower but not necessarily focused, and we may hesitate to react.  Even simple tasks or decision making can become compromised when stress is introduced. Our industry is known for an attitude of “the show must go on” and the compression of time. This attitude and pressure can introduce stress and result in behavior that compromises safety. This pressure causes us to take shortcuts to get a job done. It can lead to poor decision making such as not wearing PPE or following safety protocols to “satisfy the need” to immediately resolve an issue and save time or to escape punishment. Many times these shortcuts and attitudes can lead to accidents and injuries. In emergency situations the stress can be crippling causing hesitation in decision making and reaction or all together the inability to make timely decisions or react. Looking back at past crises and accidents it becomes clear stress played a significant role in the outcome.

Another point to highlight is that workplace stress is increasing and has significant health and financial impact. To further this point, research has shown chronic stress contributes to a reduction in brain size and function. Becoming more conscious of the impacts stress has on our ability to think and function is paramount if we want change.

Another problem the human brain has is bias. But why do we become bias and how will this affect our thinking regarding safety?

We are influenced by many different biases and not all biases are the same or influence every thought we have. But they play such an important role in our thinking and if we hope for change we need to become more conscious of the effects of our bias.

Our thinking becomes bias for many reasons. Our family, the people we work with, where we live, social media, the news and simply our years of experience all contribute to bias our thinking. Experience shapes our beliefs and habits which in turn will affect our thinking, emotions and resulting actions. For example, our everyday, ordinary lives are not typically filled with real emergencies or crises which creates experience of normalcy. This can create beliefs and habits that result in normalcy bias. This will influence our thinking, restrict our awareness and can inhibit us during an emergency to take appropriate and timely action.

Wikipedia defines normalcy bias as a mental state people enter when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster and its possible effects. This may result in situations where people fail to adequately prepare. It can result in the inability of people to cope with a disaster once it occurs.

People with normalcy bias have difficulties reacting to something they have not experienced before. People also tend to interpret warnings in the most optimistic way possible.

Most of us have experienced normalcy bias to some degree and its beginning can be very subtle and we may not even know it is happening. Many times our experience with normalcy bias does not end up in a disaster but the makings are there. For example, how many times have we downplayed the weather only to put ourselves in harm’s way and not realize the real danger until we are in it but yet lucky to live through it without incident? This experience only adds to reinforce the bias. How many incidents/accidents in our industry have been related to weather? In some of those incidents it would be fair to argue that timely decisions were not made in part because of normalcy bias. The decision makers may not have viewed the situation as serious as it was. Nor did they imagine their decisions or hesitation in action would result in such horrific injuries. If they were aware of the impending catastrophe they certainly would have done more than they did. Another fair question to ask is if we were in that position how would we have reacted?

Another important and pervasive bias is confirmation bias. A definition of confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that causes a tendency to selectively collect information that supports one’s preexisting beliefs while discounting information that may contradict it. This process is irrational but most people want to believe what they believe. It feels wrong to look for information that would contradict our beliefs. It is most prevalent when strong emotions are tied to a belief or when beliefs are deeply ingrained. How many times have we heard “I have been doing it that way for 20 years and nothing has happened?” Shifting that thinking to a better or safer way can be a challenge.

Acknowledging stress, bias and our process of thinking is an important first step in resolving some of these issues. Another important step is acknowledging how the right type of education can help prepare us to handle the stress during an emergency. There are three basic types of learning: auditory, visual and kinesthetic or experiential. Most would agree that experiential learning may provide the best means for preparing us to handle a crisis and the stress introduced when under duress. The military, airline pilots, police, and firefighters to name a few all use experiential learning to some degree to help immerse their people in simulated emergency situations to better prepare them when in a crisis.

To shift the paradigm of safety we must become aware of the affects stress and bias have on our thinking. We need to better understand how we will react when in a crisis. We also must employ the right type of training that best prepares us to react appropriately in crisis or when simply stressed by factors such as limited time. Education and training may also provide insight into who is, and who is not capable of handling the stress that is induced in emergency situations.

Jacob Worek