Author Bio ▼

‘Paul’s entire legal career has been spent at Eversheds Sutherland where he works as a Partner and Solicitor Advocate. Previously a criminal law academic and owner of a contracting company, Paul can empathise with the challenges facing employers. Specialising in corporate criminal defence; his experience covers health and safety, environmental, road traffic and education disciplines. He regularly defends proceedings brought by the HSE, EA, Local Authorities and the ORR. Recent experience includes acting for a contractor following a traffic death; advising a brick company following a machine trap resulting in paralysation; performing a compliance audit at various utility companies; acting for 2 ports in different inquests; acting for a distributor following radiation exposure at a warehouse; representing a manufacturer following a death on a conveyor and acting for a university following an explosion. Paul conducts his own advocacy whenever possible. He has written numerous articles for major trade publications and national newspapers. Paul leads the Health and Safety Training team which educates Eversheds’ clients on regulatory matters. He holds a Post Graduate Certificate in Education and was awarded the Lincolnshire Award of Merit in Education for outstanding contribution to that sector in his previous career as a lecturer. Paul is also a trustee of volunteer cancer charity ‘Team Verrico’.
July 5, 2021

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Safety culture

Safety Theory: Habituation, remote misses and safety messaging

Have you ever wondered why workers seem not to learn from near misses that happen to them or colleagues? Why do employees repeatedly do things that are obviously unsafe? Paul Verrico and Sarah Valentine, from Eversheds Sutherland, investigate…

Sarah Valentine

Sarah Valentine

Understanding near misses is an art: it is something we often look at in the aftermath of a serious or fatal incident. The duty holder may have had warnings or close calls in the past that went unheeded; workers may have had contact with near misses where they nearly came to harm but ultimately nothing bad happened on previous occasions and then – a major event. Naval gazing and head scratching that lessons had not been learned.

We can understand this behaviour better when we look at the theory of remote misses, which was developed by psychiatrist J.T. MacCurdy in the Second World War and focuses on the dangers of habituation.[1]

In the years preceding World War II, when concerns grew that conflict was likely, the British Government was terrified of the consequences of an aerial bombardment of London. Intelligence suggested that well planned air-raids would leave thousands of people dead, millions would be affected, and mass chaos would result in an economic downfall.

The war began and the feared aerial bombardment began. The sky darkened as shells fell. All sorts of measures had been considered to keep order; psychiatric hospitals were set up on the outskirts of the capital, the home guard were deployed, and city dwellers were lined up to be sent to the country. As predicted, thousands of Londoners were indeed killed or injured. Homes, factories and warehouses were destroyed on a daily basis. But – here’s the curious thing – the mass panic never happened.

MacCurdy observed that when a bomb falls, people are divided into three distinct groups.

  • The first group are the direct hits. The people who die. Of course, each death is tragic and sad, but the people in this group no longer have an effect on those around them. They can’t cause fear and panic because they are no longer alive. As MacCurdy puts it, “the morale of the community depends on the reaction of the survivors, so from that point of view, the killed do not matter.”
  • The second group are the near misses who, “feel the blast, they see the destruction, are horrified by the carnage, perhaps they are wounded, but they survive deeply impressed.” Those in the second group include those injured by a bomb or who see a family member hurt or killed. They are a larger number than the direct hits, but still statistically not a significant number.
  • The third group are the remote misses, and these are our focus. They are essentially unaffected. The bombs have fallen far enough from them that the personal consequences are much less. They heard the sirens, they heard the aircraft above, but they survived easily. MacCurdy states, “a near miss leaves you traumatised. A remote miss makes you think you are invincible.”

Londoners were unfazed by the blitz because the direct hits were spread out across eight million people. This meant there were many more remote misses than near misses or direct hits. MacCurdy notes his surprise at the response of a workman when asked if he wanted to be evacuated to the country after being bombed out of his house twice, “What, and miss all this? Not for all the tea in China!”

MacCurdy classifies it this way, “We are prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration.” After such events as a bombing are over, “the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage. The same event can be profoundly damaging to one group while leaving another better off.

The psychiatrist goes on to describe an occasion in October 1940 when he drove through South-East London after a series of attacks. His drive was perilous, because every 100 yards or so there were bomb craters or building wreckage. Suddenly, the air raid siren blew… and very little happened. “Small boys continued to play all over the pavements, shoppers went on haggling, a policeman directed traffic in majestic boredom. No one, as far as I could see, even looked into the sky.”

Majestic Boredom

electrical-cable-messThe reason for this attitude, the sense of invulnerability, is that those on the streets had been through the very worst of times… and survived unscathed. They had faced their fears, and realised they were not as bad as they thought they were going to be.

Applying this to the workplace: when workers take chances – they don’t wear a hard hat, they ignore a safety warning – and nothing bad happens to them, they can also develop bad habits and indifference to heeding the safety message – portended by the siren in 1943. They become ‘deaf’ to the messaging of those in authority, internally convinced that they don’t need to heed the warnings as nothing bad will happen to them – they’ve heard similar messages for years or decades and they have ‘got away with’ not being harmed.

What does this mean for safety moments, safety alerts and some toolbox talks? Such tools need to be carefully deployed. Simply telling an incessant tale of woe from other companies, other industries or other people may actually desensitise the audience, turning them into remote misses, actually giving the employees a feeling of moral superiority that something bad has happened but NOT to them.

Turning to the COVID-19 situation, we perceive similar behaviours. After the initial doomsday pronouncements of the national authorities, a majority have been fortunate enough to avoid contracting the disease. Similarly, most people who did catch COVID-19 suffered relatively minor symptoms and seem to have avoided long term effects. Those in those groups would be Maccurdy’s ‘remote misses.’

If we only read of the worst effects of the pandemic or see television news, we can become even more desensitised to its effects. This can affect behaviours and increase risk taking, ignoring governmental guidance and taking less precautions, on the basis we are somehow immune from real harm. Objectively, we may accept this as folly, but sub-consciously may embrace that attitude.

A desensitised workforce is a workforce that is more likely to take risks and step away from safe systems of work. Living through past incidents, near misses and activities where corners have been cut, without incident, creates a negative safety culture.

What can organisations do about this?

Empowering the workforce to focus on the conditions which give rise to the incident or near miss rather than the actions or omissions of the worker will assist in learning and discussion and will bring everyone on the journey to delivering world class safety. A positive safety culture shows compassion to spark positive change and does not blame or reprimand others.

Organisations should ensure clear channels of communication with the workforce following an incident, or near miss, in order to monitor their performance and to reach out and provide support where required. Change to a safety system or a new method of working following evidence of a routine violation needs to be monitored to provide evidenced assurance.

Make safety more than a slogan. Organisations should take care in how they deliver their safety message. All too often we seen organisations use the same clichés that ‘safety is a priority’  ‘safety is top of the agenda’ and our ‘mission is zero harm’. But what does that look and feel like to those working with or for the company?

We believe that organisations should step away from generalised safety campaigns to shift focus to the workforce and the shop floor. Rather than driving messages of bad things happening to other people, try focusing on a positive safety message of successful safety initiatives and how they have benefitted others.

We leave the last word to MacCurdy “For generations it has been proverbial that the countryman was terrified by the traffic when he first came to town. If habituation did not abolish, or at least reduce fear, we should have fewer traffic accidents. Those who know the danger best are, as a rule, those who are least frightened.”

Be on guard against habituation in your safety systems!

Paul Verrico is a Partner and Sarah Valentine a Principal Associate in the Eversheds Sutherland Health and Safety practice.

[1] The Structure of Moral, John Thompson Maccurdy, Cambridge University Press, 1943

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Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree
6 months ago

There is another category, the one’s that prefer to expediently deny their injuries like, you know, DSE operators insisting “I’m fine” although, actually on average loosing 20% performance / productivity while quietly suffering presenteeism and more fearful of anyone noticing than compliance with elf-an-safety reg’s or addressing their injuries.

Paul Verrico
Paul Verrico
6 months ago
Reply to  Nigel Dupree

no, they would be remote misses. They think it doesn’t affect them.

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul Verrico

Hi Paul, do you mean the 42% of DSE operators way back in 2007 that didn’t report visual disruptions by the end of the day, eye-strain, CVS or Screen Fatigue resulting in repetitive stress injuries / adaptations, suppression myopia or asthenopic 2D adaptations exhibited in 3D vision loss the other up to 58% of operators experienced? Bearing in mind probably 10% of the 58% back then were Dyslexic, like the 43,000 Civil Servants and no one in Government admitting or even know how many with preexisting visual impairments or Neurodiverse at predictably a 4 to 7 fold increased risk of… Read more »

Paul Verrico
Paul Verrico
6 months ago
Reply to  Nigel Dupree

I’m not arguing with any of those statistics Nigel – I’m saying that for the purpose of MacCurdy’s theory, they would be ‘remote misses’.

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul Verrico

For sure a “miss” and now even more “remote” working from home – hahah

Laura Davies
Laura Davies
6 months ago

I enjoyed this article and it really made me think and also question the way I train, investigate incidents etc. My question is for SHP as a publisher, why don’t you publish more “success” stories so SHE Advisors like myself can use them to inspire staff?

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree
6 months ago
Reply to  Laura Davies

Hi Laura, the biggest problem is fear is of being found wanting in some way, in these far from secure times and, pre-coronavirus presenteeism in DSE operators “carrying-on regardless” now even at greater risk of perpetuating increased levels of presenteeism and thereby, associated “unreported repetitive stress injuries” accounting for the 20% loss in productivity pre-2020 let alone post 2020 unless, employers recognise the benefits of compliance with ISO 30071.1 DSE Colour Contrast Calibration (Linked to WCAG 2.1 website Accessibility Colour Contrast Validation) let alone ISO 45001/3. It has already be noted that there was a drop in actual “sickness absence”… Read more »

Ian Hart
Admin
Ian Hart(@ian-hartubm-com)
6 months ago
Reply to  Laura Davies

Hi Laura, glad you enjoyed the article. We publish a host of case study content and guest posts championing ideas and initiatives that have been successful. We are always open to new contributors and ideas, if you have a story you’d like to share. Ian

Andrew Welton
Andrew Welton
6 months ago

How often have we heard of a new OHS strategy that purports to reduce our incident rates which is often remote from the actual drivers that promote unsafe behaviours. The actions, attitudes and behaviours that are visible are essentially outputs of our culture. If workers can’t address unsafe conditions quickly, these unsafe conditions become normalized and the culture does not change. We are adaptable, [see ‘Chef with a funny voice‘] which makes it difficult for us to have a sense of urgency about unsafe conditions that have been around for a long time. If organizations acknowledge that safety and management… Read more »

Richard Davison
Richard Davison
6 months ago

A very engaging read; thank you. I agree that habituation plays a huge part in our general and almost subconscious acceptance of risk. If safety professionals had a pound for every time they heard, “but we’ve always done it like this!”…. I also agree that the focus of a truly progressive culture should be the positive effects of H&S, not simply doom-and-gloom warnings of what might happen. We should trust our workforces – and enable a culture where they do it the safe way because they want to and appreciate the benefits, rather than feeling they have to in order… Read more »

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree
6 months ago

Insidious levels of fatigue are also responsible for many an unintentional minor errors and/or mishap in terms of missing something normal caught before it potentially hit’s the fan however, as presenteeism and “carrying-on regardless” continues to exacerbate the hazard or risk to human functionality the expediency of omitting to correct and/or report the simple let alone more impactful little errors that may compound into something else, Wellbeing or sustainable optimal Psychosocial health significantly mitigates fatigue related omissions and will remain critical to recovering performance and productivity.

Mark pierce
Mark pierce
6 months ago

Thank You for the article. It has got me thinking.
The one thing it does highlight again is that Human behaviour is the biggest factor in safety.