The neuroscience behind how workers make conscious safety choices

Monday, 14 May, 2018 - 15:45
Industry news
National News

Traditional safety approaches assume that safety is logical and that good safety is a function of good procedures, systems and equipment – however, safety is not logical, according to an expert in safety and neuroscience.

Most decisions are made based on emotion and then justified logically, said Nada Wentzel, global solutions director at The Jonah Group, which will be presenting at the SIA National Health & Safety Conference 2018 at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre which will run from 23-24 May 2018.

“Good safety is a function of people making conscious safety choices,” she said.

“Conscious safety choices are a function of people feeling socially and emotionally safe.

“For this reason, safety leaders need to recognise and value the role of emotions and their role in creating an enabling or disabling environment which influences.”

Wentzel said that neuroscience provides safety leaders at all levels with powerful insight to drive a culture of care and conscious safety choices.

“A common refrain heard after an incident occurs is ‘what were they thinking?’ or some more colourful iteration thereof,” she said.

“While we cannot know the exact answer to that question, what we do know is that the majority of our thinking is in fact unconscious, often reactive and on run on auto-pilot. “Neuroscience helps us better understanding decision making and how the brain introduces unconscious hazards which impacts an individual’s ability to ‘see’ hazards.”

Wentzel further explained that the biggest challenge in safety leadership is interrupting complacency and recognising limbic risk.

“Our aim is to enable people to operate in a state of peak performance which requires a certain level of what we refer to at The Jonah Group as ‘healthy fear’.

“The absence of healthy fear results in complacency – people taking short cuts, normalisation of deviation or procedural creep and the ‘she’ll be right mate’ attitude.”

“Too much fear, results in what we refer to as limbic overload and people operating under stress, pressure, fatigue, distraction and irritation,” she said.

When people are operating under these modes, it introduces additional risk and increases the probability of an incident.

OHS leaders need to influence their business to invest in developing people’s capability to ‘see’ and consciously interrupt complacency and limbic overload, said Wentzel, who explained that leaders need to:

  • Create an emotionally safe environment
  • Acknowledge as humans we’re innately wired for limbic risk
  • Leading with compassion is a strategy for better results and not a weakness
  • Be conscious of how their response and language shapes culture.

Wentzel shared an analogy for OHS professionals on the importance of focus, and explained that when she trained to become a pilot years ago, she learnt two very important lessons.

“Firstly, you need to have a flight plan and secondly, the slightest shift in coordinates would have you end up in a very different location,” she said.

“Did you know that an aeroplane flying west of Australia, headed for Brazil, would end up in North America if you changed its course by just two degrees?

“Similarly, in safety, the slightest change in your focus, even just two degrees will change your destination. The question is, what do you consciously focus on?”

Wentzel will be speaking at the SIA National Health & Safety Conference 2018, which will be held from 23-24 May 2018 at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre, 1 Convention Centre Place, South Wharf VIC. For more information visit the conference website, email or call (03) 8336 1995.