Several factors contribute to mishaps, accidents, and unsafe working conditions. Many of these contributing factors are psychological and social biases. The good news is that you can do something about most of these biases–even when you’re working in an organization with an unsafe culture.
The first way to counter biases and unsafe psychological influences is to learn about them. Just learning and being aware of their existence weakens their influence on your behaviors. Here are some of the most common biases and unsafe psychological influences to be aware of:
- Diffusion of Responsibility: your sense of responsibility diminishes in the presence of other people. People in a group are less likely to respond to an emergency than one person alone, because everyone in the group believes someone else will take care of it (or be better at taking care of it).
- Pluralistic Ignorance: when nobody else acts like anything is wrong, then you are more likely to believe or act like nothing is wrong (even when it is).
- Deindividuation: as part of a crowd you will feel more like you can hide impulsive or lazy behaviors that lead to unsafe working conditions.
- Group-think: in a group you will feel more pressured to go with the flow and agree with the rest of the group without talking things through.
- Illusion of Transparency: we grossly over-estimate others’ ability to know what we are thinking and why.
- Choice-supportive Bias: once we make a choice, we convince ourselves that choice was made based on more evidence or information than it actually was.
- Gambler’s Fallacy: we think that future probabilities are altered by past events, when in reality they are unchanged. For example, “I’ve safely skipped this step the last hundred times I did this, so there is no real chance skipping this step again will cause any trouble today.”
What else can you do to keep yourself and your friends safe on the job?
- Slow things down. Rarely do you really need to make a split second decision, but with other people around you’re more likely to feel rushed into acting due to perceived social pressures (e.g. you don’t want to keep a customer waiting, or look like an idiot who doesn’t know how to start the procedure on your own). But you can combat errors before they occur if you take an extra minute to think through things before acting. You can even invite those waiting on you to help you think it through and maximize your ability to avoid errors.
- Recruit certainty. If you are unsure, consult the directions, manuals, a guru, an instructor, or a co-worker with knowledge, experience, and commitment to safe work practices. Asking for first-aid is far more embarrassing than asking for help or someone to look over your shoulder and help you make sure you’re doing it right.
- Play devil’s advocate. We’re programmed to go along with the crowd, but when we do so we miss plausible concerns that we could have done something about before they were catastrophic. Think about what might go wrong and make an explicit decision to deal with or ignore the risks.
- Take responsibility. Don’t assume someone else will notice or say something is amiss. If something feels or looks off, talk about it until others have at least acknowledged they see it too. If someone suggests doing something that is outside of or goes against your training, say you are not comfortable doing it and propose other options.
- Role-play responses. Mentally rehearse or practice with a friend what you would do if someone pressured you to do unsafe work. We often commit to unsafe acts because we are put on the spot and don’t have time to think of good responses or alternative options. Practicing what you would do and say in such situations will make it a lot easier to make safe decisions. Practicing with others also models safe work for everyone.