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March 3, 2015

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Checklist frenzy: help in spotting hazards

By David Towlson

Whilst reviewing a fire risk assessment of an office recently, I was reminded of the value of checklists. Checklists can be a little polarising. Some people are totally against checklists and some are totally for them. This is a little like prime minister’s question time. The opposition is bound to disagree just on principle.

Well, I find them useful in a couple of ways – to help guard against both habituation and sensory overload. Here’s why.

Habituation is the tendency for us to get so used to stuff that we start not to notice it anymore. Sometimes this is a good thing (some of you may have been married for a long time), but often it isn’t. It happens in all aspects of our lives – the stimulus no longer has the effect it once had (alas). It happens too in workplaces – we get used to hazards, mess, whatever it is and may no longer even notice it. That’s why I find checklists can help – they force you to look at things in a systematic way instead of just casting your eye over it (filtering out what you’re used to) and concluding everything is fine as it is.

At the other extreme, especially when going into a new or unfamiliar workplace, you can suffer from sensory overload – there is just too much to take in and you end up not noticing the obvious and/or being distracted by the unfamiliar and concentrating on the wrong thing (or the trivial). An extreme example, but this can happen when say, an office worker, visits a factory or warehouse environment and concludes the whole thing is a death trap and may not at all appreciate the controls in place are “reasonably practicable” for the industry. But even if you are reasonably familiar with the type of workplace environment, but not the specific workplace, the checklist helps keep you focused rather than fixated.

I am not in favour of overly prescriptive checklists – allowing for stuff that is unusual (or missed off) is always a good idea. But I like them, almost as they are.

David Towlson is director of training and quality at RRC International

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