Key Takeaways

- This article presents a new perspective on why hazards occur with repeated, habitual tasks.

- Complacency is not what many OSH professionals believe it to be. It is a by-product of a neural pathway deep in the brain, isolated from much of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) activity essential for external awareness and sensitivity to hazards.

- An understanding of the neuroscience of complacency will allow OSH professionals to more effectively advise companies to manage complacency and mitigate the adverse consequences of task repetition by engaging the PFC function of the brain.

Businesses that rely on repetitive tasks face a workplace disrupter: complacency. The adverse effects of complacency in the workplace have been an ongoing source of concern in the OSH community. This all-too-prevalent workplace condition often results in incidents as well as decreased efficiency and attendant costs.

What is not agreed upon is the reason for this problem. In the author’s experience, she has noticed that while OSH professionals are concerned about complacency, there is no agreement as to its definition; professionals use the term in different ways to refer to different kinds of events.

Merriam-Webster offers the following definition of complacency: “self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.” This definition is so connected to safety that it is accompanied by the following example sentence: “When it comes to safety, complacency can be dangerous.” However, this definition does not offer the OSH professional much help in clearly identifying what complacency is and when it is a risk factor.

This article aims to explore a previously undiscussed component to complacency: basic brain design. Given how the human brain has evolved to operate, complacency is an unavoidable risk factor that can be managed but not eliminated. With this scientifically based understanding of complacency, OSH professionals can more effectively prevent complacency from posing a risk to employees’ safety. The article will offer six principles to guide OSH efforts. Strategies and examples illustrate how each principle can be applied to real-world safety scenarios.

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