Complacency: Danger Dead Ahead

“And the complacency of fools destroys them.”  (Proverbs 1:32)

So sayeth the bible and, while most of us aren’t fools, we are complacent and we pay a high price for it.   According to one military aviation analysis, some 88 percent of so-called aviation Class A mishaps (fatalities, permenant disability or total loss of aircraft) involved overconfidence or complacency.  The FAA has listed complacency as the number two cause of human error incidents (behind lack of communication).

Most of the time we focus on complacency in workers.   The experienced hand who won’t wear his flame retardant clothing because he has never been involved in a flash fire.  the truck driver who doesn’t check the mirror before backing up.   Any experienced safety professionals knows that complacency can short-circuit all of the hazard controls we put in place and it is an every day struggle to  make workers realize that they can never take hazards for granted.

But increasingly, industry is concerned about complacency that starts at the top.   It goes something like this:

  1. Company institutes safety program.
  2. Company dedicates resources to communicate the program to workers through training, safety meetings and on-the-job reinforcement.
  3. Incident rates go down.
  4. Company officials congratulate themselves on their success.
  5. Company focus moves on to other areas.
  6. Major accident happens.

Sometimes this is called “risk tolerance.”   As incidents decrease, we become more comfortable with potentially unsafe activities because, after all, the incident rates show we are operating safely.   There is a very good article on this here.

Complacency can also be an industry-wide problem.    OSHA’s recent re-opening of the PSM rules and some officials’ statements indicate that the agency is afraid has happened in the chemical industry.   Some in the offshore oil and gas sector are concerned about that happening with the SEMS rule.    It is barely two years old and the worry is that some companies view it as a box to be checked instead of a model for continuous improvement.   It appears that was the topic of a recent conference

Sometimes complacency is called the “silent killer,”  perhaps because when we aren’t talking about safety we are at the most risk.


Leave a Reply