Understanding and combating complacency in the workplace

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Friday, 13 May, 2022 - 12:00
Industry news
National News

Complacency is an often-misunderstood concept when it comes to WHS, and it is important to understand its potential impact in the workplace and put in place complacency countermeasures, according to Kerry Smith, safety manager for Holcim Australia.

Complacency can be defined as doing a task many times, without injury/incident, so that a person is no longer fully aware of the risks and dangers involved, he said.

“If we got injured every time we did something that was unsafe, then complacency would not exist,” said Smith, who was speaking ahead of the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference, which will be held in Melbourne from 25-26 May 2022.

“For example, if every time we walked along looking at our smartphone, we walked into a pole and hurt ourselves it would not take us long to learn not to walk without keeping our eyes on the path.

“It might be determined that someone was complacent and that is why they were speeding, or they are complacent and that is why they are not wearing a life jacket.”

However, Smith said these are quite different types of complacency, as speeding has a “short-term reward” (the person likely gets to their destination faster) with an “uncertain outcome” (typically the person only has a crash if something unexpected happens and they cannot stop or avoid it).

Whereas he explained not wearing a life jacket has a “short-term drawback” (it takes time and effort to put on and can be uncomfortable) with an “uncertain outcome” (it is only needed if an incident occurs, for example, the boat sinks).

“Knowing more about complacency will help to develop better strategies to manage it and reduce it more effectively,” he said.

For example, people speed mostly because there is a short-term reward, (they are likely to get to the destination faster) and there is an uncertain outcome (if nothing unexpected happens then most of the time they do not have a crash).

“So, the type of complacency involved with speeding is ‘short-term reward with an uncertain outcome’,” he said.

“In contrast to this, if we think about people being complacent and not using hearing protection there is a short-term drawback (hearing protection can be uncomfortable and it takes time to put it on properly) with a ‘long-term outcome’ (hearing loss).

So the type of complacency that is involved with not wearing hearing protection is a “short-term drawback with a long-term outcome”.

“The strategies that could be used to combat complacency can be improved by knowing more about the type of complacency,” he said. For example, complacency involved with speeding is “short-term reward with uncertain outcome”. 

Where the complacency type includes a “short-term reward”, he said such a reward should be acknowledged. “It is pointless arguing against the reward,” he said.

“If a person was driving on the 90 mile straight on the Nullarbor and a comparison was made between driving at 100km/h versus 110 km/h, it would take eight minutes longer to drive from one end to the other.

“But what is also known is that when a person is driving in a city a fair bit of time is spent stopped at traffic lights, slowing to turn corners, etc.”

This means that the average speed will be considerably lower than the posted speed limits anyway, and Smith explained that in this case, a 5 km/h difference in maximum speed will not actually make much difference because the person does not actually drive at the maximum speed that much when they are driving in city traffic.

“By quantifying the actual reward it may be determined that the short-term reward is a lot smaller than what most people think it is,” he said.

To combat this “short-term reward”, it may be possible to highlight and/or create short-term drawbacks, said Smith.

“For example, with speeding, it is known that when a person drives faster, the stopping distance increases,” he said.

“If something happens and the person needs to stop, the braking distance is increased, and if they hit they will hit harder. Highlighting the short-term drawback that behaviour creates will assist in motivating the person to change.”

Smith added most personal health issues fit into the category of “short-term reward with the long-term outcome”, such as drinking excessive amounts of sugary drinks, for example.

“In the short-term, there will be little change from drinking sugary drinks, so highlighting the long-term outcome to people is one option to combat this aspect of complacency (for example, showing the amount of sugar consumed in a year if a person had one can of sugary drink each day),” he said.

 “Another option is to highlight and/or create short-term outcomes (for example, by swapping from drinking sugary drinks to drinking free tap water the person can save money).”

Knowing more about the type of complacency will help to develop better strategies to manage it and reduce it more effectively resulting in improved safety, said Smith.

Smith will be speaking at the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference, which will be held in Melbourne from 25-26 May 2022. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.