Complacency Is Hardwired: Tips for confronting and managing it on the job site

By Marlena Chertock | May 14, 2024
Complacency Is Hardwired: Tips for confronting and managing it on the job site

We’ve all seen—or been—that distracted worker. Barely thinking about the task at hand, floating in a dream state of mindless habit-following. Safety professionals call this state of mind complacency. And it’s one of the biggest workplace hazards.




We’ve all seen—or been—that distracted worker. Barely thinking about the task at hand, floating in a dream state of mindless habit-following. Safety professionals call this state of mind complacency. And it’s one of the biggest workplace hazards.

Safety is the most profitable aspect of any company, said Wes Wheeler, executive director of safety at NECA. “One accident, one incident can change the public’s perception or wipe out a company overnight,” he said.

Below are some ways to combat this workplace hazard.

External clues

While complacency can’t be clearly defined, there are several clues that identify its presence. In “The Biological Basis of Complacency,” (Incident Prevention, April 2021), Sharon Lipinski, Founder and CEO of Habit Mastery Consulting, Bethesda, Md., lists them: working too fast or too slowly; eyes not on task; occupying space in the “line of fire” or danger zone; multitasking (e.g., having conversations while working); not taking risks seriously (e.g., goofing off or bragging); not following procedures (e.g., using a two-handed tool with one hand); not completing checklists or checking items off without adhering to them; skipping basic PPE or safety requirements; an increase in incidents without easily identifiable root causes; frequency of rework incidents; and decreasing frequency of near-miss or good-catch reports.

External clues, such as not having eyes on a task, can serve as a flag for whether someone is being complacent. But they’re just external clues—there’s no internal monitor for when someone stops paying attention, Lipinski warned.

“What makes it a challenge is you never know when you’re being complacent, so you never know when someone else is being complacent,” she said.

‘A relentless biological drive’

Complacency may be embedded into the makeup of our brains, Lipinski explained. While it might lead to increased workplace errors and accidents, this process of the brain is also an evolutionary advantage.

“I get frustrated hearing everybody blame complacency,” she said. “If there were no hazards, complacency wouldn’t be a bad thing at all. There’s this double-edged nature to it. The reason we learn so quickly and we’re so comfortable around so many places, activities and people, that’s all due to the fact that our brain loves to create habits.”

By repeating an action, a neural pathway is carved in the brain—a habit.

“This is not a conscious choice—our brain is doing this wiring. It’s not laziness, it’s neural pathways,” Lipinski said.

Habits allow the prefrontal cortex to not be involved, freeing up cognition space, allowing people to multitask.

“The prefrontal cortex doesn’t want to engage if it doesn’t have to,” she said. “There’s a relentless biological drive to use habits.”

“It’s the reason you can be driving on autopilot and end up at your destination thinking ‘How’d I get here?’,” she said. “From an employer standpoint, complacency is a good thing—it can make employees more effective and productive. We just have to be careful because we’re losing active engagement of the prefrontal cortex, an important role for safety.”

Complacency in the workplace is dangerous because of the risk of human error. Electricians conduct repetitive work and processes and form habits. The more you complete a task, the more habitual it becomes. As that task becomes easier, your brain relaxes and is less aware.

“You might go on autopilot,” Lipinski said. “It’s inevitable, it happens to everyone all the time. But, in certain cases, it’s dangerous.”

“They’ve been trained, they know and have seen the hazards,” Wheeler said. “A lot of times, people become overconfident. People think ‘Nothing’s ever going to happen to me.’ Then they neglect to consider all the possible outcomes that could occur—equipment malfunction, lack of maintenance, lack of proper PPE and on and on.”

Learning to work with the brain’s design is the answer, Lipinski said.

Working with the brain’s design

According to Lipinski, complacency can’t be eliminated, only managed. But there are ways to prevent people from becoming complacent. It requires vigilance and constantly re-engaging employees’ prefrontal cortexes, or triggering their awareness. Taking mental or physical breaks, or taking a walk, can help to break monotony. 

“There are things you can put in place to keep repetition from being dangerous,” Lipinski said. “The skill we need to master is knowing when repetition is helpful and when it’s potentially dangerous.”

Organizations have a responsibility to ensure employees stay cognitively engaged, Lipinski said. They can reduce work-related sources of stress, provide resources that promote physical and mental well-being and design work or implement procedures that physically stop employees and engage their prefrontal cortex before key dangerous moments.

Forcing functions and checklists

Safety procedures and so-called forcing functions need to be taken each time, according to Wheeler. 

“Because the time we overlook that redundant step is a time we can walk into a human error trap,” he said.

A forcing function, also called a go/no-go process, “allows someone to verify that a task has been done correctly before the next steps can be taken,” Lipinski said. “The lockout/tagout procedure becomes very important because what happens next can’t be undone; there’s no undo button.”

These forcing functions or checklists could be put in place before ECs energize equipment, for example. 

“Once you energize something, there’s no going back,” she said. “At those moments, you need to have forcing functions because you can’t just rely on your expertise. It’s your expertise that’s putting you at risk.”

Lipinski means that highly skilled employees are even more likely to rely on their habits, fall into complacency and make mistakes. In the world of electrical contracting, even minor mistakes can be life-altering or fatal.

Pilots and astronauts know how to fly, but must go through a checklist before they take off. According to NASA, many safety checklists follow a similar strategy:

  1. Reading or hearing the checklist item
  2. Accomplishing the item, either by verifying the correct setting or executing the checklist item
  3. Responding to the outcome of the action performed

For example, “The pilot reads conditions like ‘flaps,’ and the copilot will say ‘flaps down.’ It’s a call-and-response checklist. Those are very powerful,” Lipinski said.

Checklists in electrical work, construction or similar industries are often to-do lists or procedure lists. 

“That’s not helping with complacency; what you need is an error track checklist,” she said.

Training can also be helpful to inform employees of hazards or new procedures. But it’s not enough to change habits or behaviors, Lipinski said.

“You can’t hold a training and expect people to change anything because of it, that’s not how the brain works,” she said. “You need to be thinking out at least 60 days and providing structure after the training is over. It has to be partnered with a follow-up program to help people get practice and repetition, until new neural pathways are formed.”

And while 60 days can be a good starting point, there’s no set time frame for developing new behaviors or habits, Lipinski said. It may take longer, depending on how complicated the task is.

One-size-fits-all approaches won’t necessarily work for training and safety, Wheeler said. “You have to come up with a mechanism that’s going to get to their heart and soul. How does each individual respond to motivation?”

Another way to jolt awareness is through questions. 

“One of my favorite tools for safety professionals is just knowing how to ask good questions at the right places,” Lipinski said. “If you ask a question that makes someone pause, look around them and think about what they need to do, that’s a powerful method.” / Simple Line

About The Author

Chertock is a poet and renewable energy and science journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. Contact her at [email protected].





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