Think back to when you were learning to drive a car. Chances are good you were cautious, always using turn signals, fully stopping at all stop signs and traffic lights, and obeying the speed limit. Now think about your driving recently. Do you exercise the same level of caution? Or do you sometimes speed, change lanes abruptly, drive closely to the vehicle in front of you, or even use your cell phone?
This is an example of risk normalization, a phenomenon where risky or dangerous behaviors or practices gradually become acceptable over time. Driving today is not any less dangerous than it was, but you are more comfortable with the risks and behave more boldly.
Risk normalization is common in the oil and gas industry. Workers who are careful and precise when they first start their jobs, or even their days, may ignore warning signs or act more recklessly over time. This could mean they stop wearing certain personal protective equipment (PPE), they don’t always use equipment as intended, or they don’t follow all safety rules and procedures.
Many oil and gas jobs, like extraction or construction, are inherently dangerous. Risk normalization puts workers at even greater risk for serious injuries. Here are a few tips for leaders to recognize and address risk normalization before it jeopardizes worker safety.
1. RECOGNIZE COMPLACENCY
Complacency, a feeling of security when potential danger lurks, is a telltale sign of risk normalization. Most workers don’t report to work thinking they will be hurt or killed, so they become comfortable when they shouldn’t. As a result, they don’t always take the proper precautions. For example, workers may modify a trench protective system without the approval of a professional engineer.
There are plenty of signs that point to complacent behavior, including workers becoming disengaged, unproductive, and generally not caring about the quality of their work or meeting deadlines. When people are no longer interested in their work, they often become indifferent, which can lead to injuries or fatalities.
2. LEAD BY EXAMPLE Workers take their cues from management. If company leaders are not following safety protocols, they send the message that doing so isn’t important. Or they may think the work being performed isn’t dangerous.
Leaders should take a long, hard look at their own actions and ask, ”Am I practicing risk normalization?” Think of times you may have cut corners because a project was behind schedule, or you thought the crew was too experienced to make mistakes. Also think of ongoing safety initiatives that may have fallen by the wayside. Do you always report near misses, for example? When was the last time you held a safety standdown? When workers see their leaders doing everything in their power to stick to the company’s safety management plan, they will follow suit.
“WHEN EMPLOYEES COME TO YOU WITH SAFETY CONCERNS, TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY AND LET THEM KNOW YOU APPRECIATE THEIR WILLINGNESS TO SAY SOMETHING. IN THE COMING DAYS AND WEEKS, BE TRANSPARENT WITH THE ACTIONS YOU TOOK, SO THEY KNOW YOU DID SOMETHING WITH THE INFORMATION PROVIDED.”
3. ENCOURAGE EMPLOYEES TO SPEAK UP You can’t be everywhere at once, so it is possible risk normalization is happening out of your line of sight. In this case, other workers are privy to rules being broken, so you need them to say something.
Encourage this by ensuring confidentiality for anyone who comes forward with a complaint. Take it a step further by implementing an anti-retaliation program. OSHA cites five key elements to a successful anti-retaliation program
• ensuring leadership is fully onboard
• creating a system to listen to and resolve compliance and safety concerns
• implementing a system for receiving and responding to complaints
• providing employees and managers with anti-retaliation training
• ensuring thorough program oversight
When employees come to you with safety concerns, take them seriously and let them know you appreciate their willingness to say something. In the coming days and weeks, be transparent with the actions you took, so they know you did something with the information provided.
Despite the good intentions, it can also be wise to eliminate any programs that reward workers for having zero safety issues over a certain time, as this can discourage people from speaking up. Instead, consider rewarding workers for behaviors like attending a voluntary safety training.
4. CONDUCT REGULAR INSPECTIONS
Do not exclusively rely on OSHA inspections to catch risky safety behaviors among workers. OSHA has approximately one compliance officer for every 70,000 workers, so they are not visiting your work sites enough to identify safety hazards or risky behaviors.
Regular inspections are an important part of reducing risk normalization because they can catch safety hazards before a fatal injury occurs. Regularly reviewing adherence in areas like compliance to OSHA rules, PPE worn by workers, and equipment and machinery allows you to ensure all safety precautions are being taken.
If you are not sure you can be objective in an inspection, consider hiring a third-party to conduct one for you. Insights from someone outside your organization can highlight issues you have grown to accept as the standard, due to risk normalization.
5. MAKE TRAINING A PRIORITY Ensuring workers are properly trained will help reduce risk normalization because it can break bad habits before they start. All new workers—even veteran workers with extensive experience at other companies—should receive thorough training prior to heading to the work site. This is important because it ensures all workers are familiar with your company’s specific rules and procedures.
In addition to new hire training, workers should also receive periodic refresher training. This is an easy way to highlight risk normalization because workers will see firsthand if any of their current behaviors are unsafe. Without continued training, they could continue doing work the wrong way, which may lead to injury-causing accidents. Daily toolbox talks also help reinforce safety requirements and best practices and keep safety top-of-mind.
Risk normalization happens at every company. Even the best workers get comfortable in their jobs and often gradually slip into unsafe practices. Being aware of this issue and actively working to fight it is the best way to keep your workers safe.
Dr. Lindsay Jenkins is Senior Vice President of Strategy and Technical Operations with Urbint ( urbint.com).