The Human Nature of Shortcutting Safety at Work: Three Things to Consider

Written by: Sierra Morris

The importance of safety at work is discussed endlessly at many companies- whether that is in the mornings before work begins, during meetings, or throughout the day in the field. Even when the very top of an organization preaches and practices safety there are any many workers, supervisors included, that shortcut what is preached. While this can be chalked up to mental error, complacency, or caused by time pressures, as safety professionals we should also consider drivers such as deep-seated biological factors and learned behavior from our ancestors that kept us alive and eventually thriving as a species for millions of years. Consider the following three issues regarding the human nature of taking shortcuts.

#1: We have an evolutionary tendency to put in minimal effort

caveman taking safety shortcutsBefore the age of cars and refrigerators (actually, modern civilization as a whole), human beings had it pretty rough. If you wanted to eat, it wasn’t as simple as driving to the nearest fast food joint or throwing something in the microwave and hitting a button. We had to hunt, which expended a lot of energy. And when you have to fight for your resources, you do not really have a lot of energy in excess that you can throw around willy-nilly.

Thankfully, humans as far back as two and a half million years ago were intelligent enough to create shortcuts and break the traditional rules of hunting. Early humanity created tools to help attack faster / more dangerous animals from a distance (spears) and more easily butcher meat (hand axes). They also developed hunting techniques (i.e. persistence hunting) that would allow them to expend less energy pursuing prey. These shortcuts (in addition to fire and cooking and other important innovations) are perhaps what have lead us to have as large a frontal lobe and thinking capacity as we do now.

They were smart decisions. Shortcuts can be seen throughout human history. We’ve been engaging in this behavior since the very beginning, and continue to do it today. Even now we’re coming up with new technologies (i.e. neural lace, farming robots, self-driving vehicles) that would allow us to do things with less effort on our part.

Humans in the average workplace are no different and not in any way immune to this pattern of behavior. It is human nature to want to take shortcuts, and safe work practices often require extra effort. It’s easy for a worker to say to themselves, “I could spend 10 minutes doing this job after I’ve put on all the required PPE and performed the required equipment inspections, or I could skip all of that, do the job in 2 minutes, and then go to lunch early.”

Safety professionals will be at constant war with this tendency.

#2: People have a hard time considering long-term consequences over short-term

Pretty much all of creation has a hard time putting long-term goals ahead of short-term gratification. It’s what makes dieting so notoriously hard; most people have a tough time seeing the long-term goal (losing weight) when faced with the potential for short-term gratification (eating a whole pizza.) The human brain fights with itself in these situations; one area of the brain (emotion) tends to fight for instant gratification, which another area (calculation) fights for long-term. Humans are still animals, and so tend to lean heavily toward emotional thinking and decision-making as opposed to the more robotic logical-centered thinking.

When the person in the aforementioned scenario is faced with going to lunch early (instant gratification) or facilitating consistent safe work conditions / avoiding vague and “unlikely” consequences (long term goal), they will have a tendency to lean toward the first option. Convincing a human being of any caliber to prioritize logical thinking over emotional thinking is normally a hefty undertaking.

#3: People like to rationalize in times of emotional distress

When a worker is fighting with themselves on whether to take a shortcut, they’ll often turn to rationalization. It’s fair to think of it like a mental pep talk, a comforting session on why it’s “okay” to go ahead and take the shortcut. They likely know that taking the shortcut is wrong – they’ve had the training, they’ve heard the mantras, listened in at the safety meetings. This mental war creates a brief emotional distress situation, one easily alleviated through rationalization.

worker taking safety shortcutsRationalization is a common phenomenon in humanity. People rationalize when a part of their consciousness recognizes something they have done or want to do is wrong, and another part of their consciousness wants to create reasons why the action is acceptable. Again, it’s an internal conflict within the human psyche in which one part of the brain is at war with another.

For instance: Smokers receive constant feedback from the media, their personal relationships, their doctor, etc., that smoking is bad for their health. They hear it all the time, they know the science, they understand the truth. But quitting smoking is hard, so some turn to rationalization to stop the anxiety of feeling as though they’re in the wrong, they’re doomed, they’re hurting their family members, etc., – whatever emotional response is causing them to feel uncomfortable or guilty. Common rationalizations may include “it’s a stress reduction thing for me” or “only really heavy smokers get cancer.”

A worker seeking to rationalize a shortcut may think, “they just write these safe work procedures down and tell us to do them because they’re legally required to,” or “I’m in a hurry. I just don’t have time.” Perhaps the most common rationalization in this situation is “well, so-and-so does it all the time and he’s never been injured.” This is what’s called a “normalization of deviance.”

Normalization of deviance occurs when a deviance from the acceptable standard – i.e. not putting on required PPE before engaging in a task – has been made to seem normal. People aren’t always immediately hurt when they don’t engage in safe work behaviors. Members of the workforce will receive “false feedback” when they see someone performing a task without the required safe behaviors continually NOT get hurt or otherwise evade negative consequences. Eventually, not wearing PPE will seem normal. Breaking the rules has lost its stigma. The deviance is normalized and practically no longer exists. This makes it incredibly easy for someone to rationalize that the shortcut is okay.

THE POINT …

Taking shortcuts is well within human capacity and it is certainly within our nature. It’s instinctual, it’s what we’re hard wired to do. To encourage a safe work place, we must understand this human tendency to take the easy way out and find ways to combat it. It’s a difficult undertaking, but understanding the motivators behind the behavior will make the path to mitigating it easier to navigate.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sierra Morris resides in Fort Polk, LA
with her husband and two dogs. Still relatively new to the OSH world,
Morris seeks to make sense of occupational safety and health
issues through a lens of behavioral and social psychology.

sierra morris

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