Key Takeaways

- In prejob safety briefings, workers identify only about 45% of the hazards they face during the work period. Hazard recognition blind spots are consistent and predictable, regardless of trade, experience or education.

- Hazards that are easily identified (e.g., gravity, motion) are recognized instinctually and require comparatively low cognitive effort. Hazards that are most often missed (e.g., mechanical, pressure, chemical) are processed in the cerebrum and require relatively high cognitive effort.

- Field experiments showed that using the energy wheel improves hazard recognition by approximately 30%. The energy wheel is effective because it provides a simple set of reminders to search for commonly overlooked hazards.

Hazard recognition is a vital skill required for nearly every safety activity. For example, it is required to successfully complete prejob safety briefings, safety observations and even prevention through design reviews. Although the profession has made tremendous progress in safety management over the past 50 years, most safety practices are built on the implicit assumption that workers can see hazards that are present and anticipate those that may emerge. However, recent research suggests that hazard recognition skills may not be as strong as originally assumed (Albert, Hallowell, Skaggs et al., 2017).

As organizations have improved their incident learning, hazard recognition has emerged as a root cause in about half of all incidents (Alexander et al., 2017; Haslam et al., 2005). Because hazards can be so obvious in retrospect, many historical incident investigations ended with the conclusion that the workers were complacent or negligent (i.e., they saw the hazard but worked unsafely around it anyway). However, when we consider the context from the worker’s perspective in the moment before an incident occurred, science suggests that some hazards are overlooked because of blind spots that affect us all (Hu et al., 2018). In other words, what we once thought of as complacency may actually be a predictable biological limitation.

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