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…
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.
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.”
The 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.
 The Structure of Moral, John Thompson Maccurdy, Cambridge University Press, 1943
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