Safety Risk Taking – Its Contagious.

Here’s a problem that safety professionals have seen before: You have four crews.  Three of them follow safety rules and are incident-free.  The fourth crew has incident after incident.   It is a common problem, but solving it can be extremely difficult.

This image shows a region of the brain called caudate nucleus responding to the degree of risk in the gamble. Credit: J. O’Doherty Laboratory/Caltech
This image shows a region of the brain called caudate nucleus responding to the degree of risk in the gamble.
Credit: J. O’Doherty Laboratory/Caltech

A new brain study shows why it happens and why it is hard to fix.   It turns out risk-taking is contagious, like catching a cold.   The study was done by the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, a part of the California Institute of Technology.  Researchers put volunteers under a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in experiments measuring risk and gambling.

To put it in simple terms, when a subject took more risk, a specific part of the brain was triggered and it made it more likely that the subject would repeat that behavior in the future.   What researchers found was that, when a subject watched someone else taking risks, the same part of the brain was triggered and it was more likely to trigger in the future.  In other words,  your brain reacts the same way when you watch risky behavior as when you do something risky yourself, and that brain reaction makes it more likely that you will repeat risky behavior in the future.

So now lets look at the crew with the bad safety record.  The research seems to indicate that if one worker takes too many risks, their behavior will be “contagious.” Other worker see it, their brains react as if they had taken the risks themselves.  It makes it more likely that they will take their own risks in the future.

What do you do about this?  I have heard of companies switching around crews to break the pattern, but in some cases, the problems continue, probably because new workers model their behavior on the risk-takers.

One solution is to use psychology to fight psychology.  Double-down on behavior-based programs.  Reinforce the message that everyone is responsible for safety as a way to protect each other.   But it is just as important for the manager of that crew to watch and listen.   Figure out if one or two crewmembers are the main risk-takers.  Deal with them as individuals.  Make it clear that they need to follow the rules or leave.

This is especially tough when the main risk-taker is also the most skilled worker.  They believe that their skill means they don’t need to toe the line on safety rules and, because they are models for the rest of the crew, their risk-taking is more likely to spread to everyone else.

But the main thing you can’t do is ignore it, because risk-taking, like other contagious diseases, just gets worse if you don’t treat it.

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