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Stop!—Breaking The Cycle of At-risk Behavior
by Gary Higbee

Ever wonder why people do what they do or why you did something you wished you hadn’t? Even though I had been a safety professional for many years it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started to understand risk and why we are very willing to take it.

My wife had purchased a tricycle for my grandson and asked me to assemble it long before his birthday so she could wrap it. I procrastinated and on his birthday (just an hour before the guests arrived) I started assembling it in front of a very unhappy wife. Well, the task was much more difficult than I had anticipated. While I was rushing to complete it the screwdriver slipped and I felt a sharp pain in my hand. My rushing to get the job done and my frustration with the circumstances had led to me losing my grip. I finished the tricycle a little late but things worked out for my grandson. As for me, I had to get some stitches after the party.

It occurred to me that almost all my personal injuries had happened when I was in a hurry, frustrated or extremely tired. I had done many of these tasks repeatedly without any mishap. My state of mind seemed to have a great effect on the efficiency and safety of my work. But if the state seemed to cause the error, why didn’t it happen that way all the time?

That started me on a journey of discovery I’d like to share with you. It may help you avoid injuries in the future, and recognize risk in your co-workers, family and friends allowing you to intervene and prevent potential injuries to them also.

To effectively reduce risk of injury in the workplace we first need to understand how it fits into the whole at-risk behavioral model. The model consists of five parts: Types of at risk behavior, sources of unexpected events, critical errors leading to injury, states of being contributing to errors and Critical Error Reduction Techniques. Ready to reduce your risk of injury? Then let’s take a look.

There are three types of at risk behavior:

Intentional – This is where you know full well you’re doing something unsafe with a significant amount of risk involved. The activity is usually against a rule or even just good old common sense. Often, such activity is supported by “positive reinforcement of a negative act.” You know the risks and benefits of the risky behavior but the benefits seem to outweigh the risks. Each time you successfully perform the task “at risk” there’s a little more positive reinforcement. The more reinforcement, the more likelihood you’ll risk it again. “I’ve done this hundreds of times before so I should be able to do this again without injury.”

For example: an employee has an assignment that requires using a twelve foot stepladder. The ladder is very heavy and stored far from the point of use. He’s found a light fiberglass stepladder stored near the point of use, but it’s only seven feet tall. By standing on the top step (where there is a sign reading “no step”) he can complete the task. He’s increased the risk of the task but that doesn’t mean an injury will happen. At first he is very alert to the added risk and exercises extra caution. If the positive reinforcement is strong enough he will even share his “success” with others (“use this ladder, it’s quicker and easier”) and this activity soon becomes the new “standard”—everyone will be doing the activity at risk.

Unintentional – A case where you’re unaware of risks, possibly due to flawed training, undertraining or inattention to the training.

Habitual – Like the intentional behavior we covered above, you know the risks but have been doing the activity so long that you’re no longer as alert to them. The employee in our example above was once very alert to the added risk and exercised extra caution but over time the activity has migrated from intentional with a high degree of caution to habitual with limited caution. Once a high risk task moves to habitual, complacency has set in.

No matter what at risk behavior is involved, something unexpected has to enter the equation before an accident will occur.

Three Sources of the Unexpected

To get hurt or even have a close call a number of dominos need to fall into place. You must have a minimum amount of energy to cause an injury, you have to come in contact with the energy and something unexpected has to happen. There are three sources of the “unexpected”

Mechanical - Something breaks, usually due to a mechanical failure.

The Other Person - Someone else does something unexpected, such as when someone working overhead drops a hammer from above.

Self - You do something you never intended to do, like hitting your thumb with a hammer. This source of the unexpected is where over 90% of the injuries originate.

We are going to concentrate on the “Self” area because, from a behavioral focus, it’s the area with the most potential to improve. Let’s look at four critical errors that give us the most trouble.

Eyes not on task – You aren’t looking at what you’re doing or aren’t looking before you move. You lose the ability to react to events as they occur and have lost your best defense against injury.

Mind not on task – For example, driving on the interstate not thinking about where you are and missing your exit.

Being in the “Line-of-Fire” – For example, reaching into a car just as someone else shuts the door.

Losing your balance, traction or grip – This can lead to an injury through a fall, or cause us to drop something.

Understand that you may have an injury in the Mechanical and Other Person sources of unexpected area mentioned above without one of these four errors but you will never have an injury in the Self area without making one or more of these mistakes. But what makes us make the error in the first place? We often make the error because we’re in one of the following states:

Four States of Being

  1. Rushing
  2. Frustration
  3. Fatigue
  4. Complacency

There are other states like depression, elation, illness and fear that can take your mind and eyes off your task but these four are most likely to cause us trouble on a day to day basis. Complacency is the most difficult state to deal with.

There is a pattern to injuries in the self area. When you make one of the four errors you don’t actually get hurt every time but you do increase the likelihood of an injury and the potential severity of that injury every time. That increase in probability and severity is illustrated by the change in the risk triangle shown below.

This shows the risk pattern involved in the great majority of injuries. The arrow points to the errors and this is where most of the safety training we receive is directed. “Be careful, follow directions, watch what you’re doing.” All of this is good advice, but it doesn’t increase safety skills. It may or may not increase awareness but awareness is lost in the blink of an eye when some external or internal stress is added to the equation.

Critical Error Reduction Techniques

Improving safety skills takes a little work on your part. Listed below are four safety skill development techniques that can help prevent injuries. While the techniques are much more effective when taught through a comprehensive course like SafeStart, you can learn a great deal about yourself and your personal safety skills by practicing these. What we are doing here is moving the arrow in the illustration to the left, moving from an error focus of safety training to focus the training on the state. Training directed toward the error involves relying on awareness and to some degrees a little luck to improve safety performance. What we are trying to do by focusing the training on the state is moving from the limited effectiveness of awareness and luck to a skill-based focus. This type of training does not replace all the technical training required to provide a safe and healthy workplace. However, we all know that knowing the rules and procedures doesn’t always lead to positive safety performance. We all know the speed limit on the interstate and are able to drive the proper speed, but we often exceed the speed limit. The focus here is on better safety skills. Listed below are the four critical error reduction techniques.

1. Self-trigger on the state to prevent or avoid making the error. This is something many of us do already. We get so frustrated with something that we just stop and walk away for a while before coming back to the task later. The problem is we may not trigger at all or soon enough without practice. We can learn to trigger on one of these states to help prevent making one of the four errors that get us hurt. Even when we have to rush we can use the realization to increase alertness and focus more closely on the task at hand. This technique works very well on the first three critical errors but has limited effectiveness on complacency.

2. Analyze close calls and small injuries to prevent big ones. When we first start trying to trigger on the state we may still make some mistakes. We need to analyze those errors and close calls to see what states were involved. If it wasn’t a state maybe it was a habit we need to work on. It takes practice but is very effective at controlling the frequency and severity of injury.

3. Observe others for the state-to-error patterns. This is the most effective remedy for complacency. When we observe others in the dangerous state-to-error pattern we can do the following things:

a. Get away from them to avoid being caught up in their at risk behavior. For example, you see someone driving erratically while trying to read a book. Getting out of their way and avoiding them may be the best defense against injury. The driver is obviously very complacent.

b. Simply recognizing the greatly increased risk from their behavior (reading and driving) is should help you realize that you don’t want to do the same thing. This should help you analyze your own instances of complacency. Maybe it’s time to stop driving and checking a map at the same time.

c. You’ll also see the state-to-error pattern in co-workers, family and friends before they will. This gives you an opportunity to intervene before they get hurt and give them a hand. This not only helps them, it helps us to avoid complacency.

4. Work on your Habits – Personal safety skills can be improved, like always moving your eyes before you move your body (or car), which is your best defense against injury. When you bump into someone, instead of just saying “excuse me” why not think about the fact that one of you must have moved without looking first?

Recognizing these patterns will help you to spot situations involving increased risk. Give it a try and you’ll see how your risk of injury can be significantly reduced.

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