Column: The Human Factor—Watch Out For the Five Behavioral Traps
This article will look at how to overcome the five behavioral traps that lead people to make decisions that lead to actions that result in people being hurt.
Keep It Simple—With a Behavioral Case Study
Unfortunately, many people who write about and promote human factors use complex and sometimes vague terminology such as, “cognitive dissonance,” “cognitive biases,” “cognitive ergonomics,” “heuristics,” “models,” “paradigms,” “frontal cortex,” “the limbic system,” and “behavioral marker system.” Human factors is often defined as covering almost everything to do with what human beings think and do and what influences that thinking and doing. Of course, this does not help us help people on the frontline stay safe.
A more effective way to improve and sustain safety performance is to show people how their own behaviors hurt them and others. The best way to coach people to overcome the behavioral traps is by using short case studies.
Here is an example:
At about 0810 on a Monday morning, at a construction site, a person was offloading rolled sheet metal insulation casing from a truck to enable another team to start its job. The team supervisor explained that his guys had been waiting since 0730 and asked the person to please help by unloading the metal as soon as possible. This task was done every Monday morning. The person was wearing ordinary work gloves when the procedure required Kevlar gloves. The person was distracted by his friend shouting something about the football match on Sunday. The person’s right hand was trapped between the sharp edge of casing and the side of the truck, resulting in severed tendons on two fingers requiring an operation.
What can we learn from a mini-investigation?
Behavioral Trap 1: The Fear Factor
Why would an experienced, well-meaning person choose not to wear the correct personal protective equipment (PPE)? The answer: There was none in the storeroom because the ordering system used was ineffective. (Yes, we know that accidents always have some causes remote from the worksite). However, without the right PPE, why did the person not stop the job and plan another method? The answer: He did not want to let down the other team who needed the metal. Why do we not want to let people down? We are afraid of being accused of being unhelpful or not a team player or even upsetting the supervisor and being shouted at or disciplined. Here are some of the other natural human unhealthy fears injured parties say drove them to do the wrong thing:
- Afraid to be seen as lazy
- Afraid to be seen as a “bad person” (not helping, not a team player)
- Afraid to be seen as a trouble maker
- Afraid to admit that we do not understand
- Afraid to be seen as incompetent
- Afraid to be seen as weak
- Afraid of upsetting workmates
- Afraid of losing our jobs
- Afraid of looking stupid
Behavioral Trap 2: Unintentional Pressure From Supervisors and Workmates
In the old days, the pressure from supervisors was intentional—shouting, mocking, and even saying, “Do it or you are fired!” Nowadays, the pressure is mostly unintentional, such as asking people nicely to help. Here are some other examples of unintentional pressure:
- Not giving enough or clear instructions
- Not setting an example
- Body language indicating threats or displeasure
- Unreasonable time pressures
- Asking people to help when they are not trained or experienced enough
- Asking people twice how long they will be on a job
- Making jokes about a person’s appearance or the way he or she works
- Comparing one crew (or person) against another
Remember, unintentional pressure can also come from workmates who may be in a hurry and put pressure on a colleague to cut corners to get things done.
Behavioral Trap 3: Lack of Awareness
The friend shouting was not really aware of the effect he was having on the person. Perhaps the injured person was not aware enough of the sharp metal casing and the positioning of the truck. Many accidents today are caused merely by people just not seeing, hearing, or smelling that something is not right.
Behavioral Trap 4: Loss of Concentration
Do you agree that, in the case study, concentration was lost in two ways? First, listening to his friend took concentration away from the job and onto football. Second, because this was a routine job done every Monday, the injured person may have been on autopilot and thinking of something else. In some accidents, the lack of concentration has been caused by fatigue, worry about bad domestic/financial situations or an ill child or elderly parent, or worry about being made redundant.
Behavioral Trap 5: Wrongly Diminishing the Risk
Diminishing the risk is a mental trick we play in our minds. We know something is not right, but we convince ourselves it is OK to go ahead because
- “It’s only a small one.”
- “It will only take 5 minutes.”
- “We’ve done it many times before.”
- “We’ll be extra careful.”
Can you see the trap we set for ourselves? So what if it’s small; it may weight 45kg. You can die in 1 minute, never mind 5, and, even if we have done something 100 times, maybe today’s conditions are different.
How Do We Avoid the Behavioral Traps?
In almost every accident, some of the five behavioral traps are at work. The challenge is how to translate this knowledge into practical coaching to help people avoid the traps. Lectures do not work; you can take the horse to the trough, but you cannot force it to drink. The best way is to hold short workshops based on accident scenarios and ask people to suggest recommendations to prevent similar accidents. Then, have an extended discussion about why people might not follow those sensible recommendations. In the discussion, the five behavioral traps become evident.
Also during the discussion, how to overcome the five traps is discussed as follows:
- Work on becoming hyperaware. Be more inquisitive and get used to asking questions about anything that does not seem right.
- Think before you speak to or act with others. For a few microseconds, consider the effect on others of what you are about to do. Consciously think about reducing the fear factor where you work.
- Know that 80% of our human fear is not real; we only think it is so. Real fear (fear of dangerous equipment and crossing the road) are good; they help us survive. However, fear of looking stupid or lazy is only what we think others will think. Build more courage to do the right thing. Test whether or not your negative fear is real.
- Supervisors should know their people well enough to know if some personal issue is causing so much stress that they cannot function safely. In those rare instances, and depending on the task, get someone else to do it or postpone the job. For you and me, if we know in our heart of hearts that we cannot function, we should admit we feel we cannot do the job safely. Unfortunately, there is nothing to help you; it is a judgement call on part of the supervisor and the employee.
- Train yourself to hear when you and others make excuses to go ahead. Listen in toolbox talks, in risk assessments, and as the job progresses for “It’s only …” or “It’s just …”. Stop and ask people why they are saying that. It may be nothing, but they could be diminishing the risk.
It Is Easy To Understand but Needs Discipline To Effect Change
We know why, despite all the safety efforts, experienced, well-intentioned people do things that lead to accidents. I am sure you agree the solutions are simple and low-cost. However, they require a different mind-set from traditional training—simple exercises to bring people to their own realization that, in the end, it is their own behaviors that hurt them and others. This ultimate personal responsibility—no matter what—is a tough realization for us humans. Once we get over the initial shock, it leads to even better performance, not only in safety but also in life in general.