Complacency shouldn’t be your Exit Strategy

Taken as a whole it seems like complacency is pervasive – the #1 cause of injury.

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Yeah, I guess I got complacent”. Jack had been working the extruder for years now but this time he failed to recognize a common hazard when he was clearing a blockage.  He got lucky injuring only the sleeves of his shirt as the blades regained their motion.  When asked Jack, and many others who experience a near miss, use “complacency” as an explanation for their action. Likewise, frustrated managers blame employees for being complacent.  Taken as a whole it seems like complacency is pervasive – the #1 cause of injury.

Common wisdom suggests complacency is built up over time working a process over and over.  As the worker comes in contact with the hazards of the job frequently a process called “Habituation” may take over. 

                                HABIT (your Habits take over) UATION (the Situation)

This means that you go on Autopilot and your ability to notice changes in the hazard, or perhaps your own behavior, fades.

Just like we habituate to loud noises over time to the point we barely notice them.  We can come habituated to the hazards around us and barely notice them as well.  When this happens our behavior drifts toward risk – because the hazards are not as salient to us.  Since we notice them less, these hazards no longer influence us to take extra precautions for safety. 

In fact, we probably don’t see the hazards as hazardous any more.  With the completion of World Trade 1 recently I’m reminded of how fascinated I always was with pictures of workers finishing the Empire State Building.  What would have you and I “puckered in our pants” because of the extreme heights of the construction instead seems to be experienced by these 1930’s workers as commonplace.  No doubt they habituated to that environment above the NYC skyline.

Yet habituation is a very normal animal conditioning (humans are animals by-the-way).  In fact, it is a useful biological tool that frees up our brains instead of being overwhelmed by stimuli.  We do it all the time.  We do it automatically.  There is nothing wrong with it.

Yet, we blame those, including ourselves, who habituate to hazards; that become complacent in their tasks.  In fact, we often accept “complacency” as a root cause in our incident investigations or descriptions of risk in our behavioral safety processes. 

Unfortunately, the term “complacency” does not lead us to a solution to reduce the risks taken.  Often the complacent individual is told to “pay more attention.” But we are exhorting them to go against human nature…to stop being an animal.  And they can’t.  Complacency shouldn’t be an exit strategy… the end of your analysis.

So lets consider another approach to complacency from a behavioral science perspective. 

Acquisition – Behavior seeks out reinforcement

Remember when you first learned a complex task, perhaps one that put you in the presence of hazards and you needed to follow a process pretty closely to avoid risk and do the task correctly?  You were not very good and hopefully you had someone coaching you as you practiced and shaped up your skill.

This beginning phase when you acquired the skill was full of variance.  You varied the way you did the task in big and small ways until you eventually started doing it the same way every time.  You got better because you reduced your variance.  You got safer because you reduced your variance. 

This process of shaping occurs because you got reinforced for the correct actions.

Perhaps you had a coach who first corrected you and then said “yep, you got it” when you did it right.  Maybe you initially struggled using a tool but when you used it correctly it made things easier.  Or you finally got the harness to fit better so it wasn’t as cumbersome. 

There are a number of reinforcers that shaped your behavior.  The process probably made you feel safer around the scary hazards so you did them more.  Regardless, you systematically started doing things right, you got reinforced along the way. You mastered it and did the task the same way every time.

At this point you were doing the task safely and probably doing a high quality job helping your production.  This is the fluency zone… where you want to be, where you want everyone to be.


Extinction – Behavior stops being reinforced and seeks out new reinforcers.

So how do we lose that fluency and get complacent?  Our fluency gets extinguished, slowly burnt out by a lack of reinforcement. 

Complacency is a lack of reinforcement. 

When a set of behaviors are no longer reinforced they go seeking reinforcement just like they did when you acquired the skill. 

It is now that you start seeing small variations in the way you the task is done.  You begin to glance away from your work, allow for a bit more slack in the line, pencil whip the checklist a bit, not do that extra inspection, any one of a plethora of varying actions in search of reinforcement.

And behaviors find reinforcement, often resulting in undesirable results.   Perhaps its that small bit of social interaction, escape from bordom, a quicker procedure, one that’s more confortable or convenient.  Behaviors will find the reinforcers and then the new variance sticks.   It starts small at first but then gets bigger and bigger… unbeknownst, sometimes, to the performer. 

One only needs to look into the research surrounding Normalization of Deviance to see this phenomenon in action.

The process of acquisition, fluency, extinction is kind of like going down a funnel.  You begin with a wide range of behaviors that get funneled down, through reinforcement and practice, to a narrow range.  If these fluent practices are no longer reinforced then you exit the funnel.  Although initially well directed, you hit your target but then, bounce a bit off the target.  You begin to go a bit off target again and again.  If the behavioral variants are reinforced then that becomes your norm.

Now pair extinction, which causes more variance, with habituation.  What do you get? 

     More risk

               happening in the midst of hazards

                         that no longer feel so hazardous.

                                                                                 Bad news.

SO… how do you fight complacency?

If complacency is a lack of reinforcement… then Reinforce more. 

This is what your behavioral programs are designed to do.  Prioritize your high hazard/high potential loss tasks.  Create checklists to guide observations in those areas.  Do observations (peer, self, or supervisory) and reinforce safe acts thereby locking them in place a little longer.  You’ll also find opportunities to discuss the drift you see and reintroduce the funnel.

We are in a constant fight against complacency.  Fortunately we have a very strong tool in reinforcement.

Extinction = to exit reinforcement’s influence.                                                                                                     Don’t let complacency be your exit strategy. 


Timothy Ludwig’s website is where you can read more safety culture stories and contribute your own.  Dr. Ludwig is a partner in Praxis2 and serves as a commissioner for Behavioral Safety Accreditation at the non-profit Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (CCBS: and teaches behavioral psychology at Appalachian State University, in Boone, NC.  If you want Tim to share his stories at your next safety event you can contact him at


Excellent article.

When I was working (now retired) we started to measure our safety and health performance using the Luck Factor, which was a take-off of Dan Petersen’s. We started encouraging and rewarding near miss (Complacent) incident reporting. We started to get a real feel for what was happening. We then began really analyzing every near miss as if the worst had happened. We assigned number 1-5 for what might have happened. We then created a multiplying factor % for the probability of the worst case actually happening. Multiplying the two numbers gave us the real safety and health performance of our facilities. That number became the Luck Factor and the real way to judge our S&H performance as opposed to incident and severity rates.

Our incidents were then analyzed according to the luck factor when previously they were analyzed based on actual severity. This really opened everyone’s eyes. No longer were plants celebrating only because they had on lost time injuries. They were celebrating a luck factor less than three (by our definition a 3 would be first aid required).

We had to work really hard to keep “Management” out of the process. When they saw that we weren’t really as good as the OSHA recordables showed, they first response was punitive. Because I was a successful Plant GM with an outstanding S&H record, I was asked to change the Corporate Safety and Health Culture. Because of my past performance record I was able to convince them that discipline would destroy the program. Only deliberate unsafe acts were subject to discipline and that involved neutral analysis. There was a lot more involved, but I think you get the picture.

Ultimately, when our CEO started referring to the Luck Factor, we knew we had made the culture change from top to bottom that everyone agreed was a game changer in our S&H program.

Great pertinent information and direct, real world feedback to the front line workers goes a long way toward ending Complacency.

Dan Lambert


Good, powerful article on how to fight habituation...just look at the president's security guards!


Jim Corns

Safety Consultant at Havtech

Tim I think you are spot on. I have been in a safety position for may years and when things become routine some one is going to get hurt. I have preached cross training for years and still feel if I could rotate personal accidents would be reduced. Again, I like your article.


Trish McBee

EHS Coordinator at D-J Enginering Inc.

Thanks for the article. I think I can learn from this.


Joseph Reilly

Director of Health and Safety at Specialized Industrial Services

Thank you Tim. Very insightful post and helpful in understanding the human behavior that leads to complacency as well as the way to avoid falling into that trap. 

I really gained additional insight from your double funnel diagram. Great post!


Carleton Emerson

Site Safety Manager, Webcor Builders

Well written article! I think safety programs that lacks acknowledgment for the workforce is missing a key component. In my years of experience it doesn't take much to keep people focused on their tasks and avoid becoming complacent. A shirt, a lunch, a tool, etc. Something that tells the workforce your work is not going unnoticed. Another way to help with complacency is rotating people off the same task. In construction that is a lot easier to do than manufacturing, but teaching people new skills, and keeping their work day interesting will help keep them engaged in their work.


Gerry Colverson

Independant health and safety consultant

a good article and the use of reinforcement is definitely the key for this problem. There have been some interesting studies on positive reinforcement as a tool to reinforce wanted behaviours. It is far better to praise the individual who is getting it right than tear a strip of the one who is getting it wrong. 
Unfortunately, this is a technique not used that often by supervisors who see any aberrant behaviour as a threat to their authority and focus on stopping that rather than looking for correct practices and praising them.


Tony Ferguson


We are our brothers keeper in that we all look after the safety of each other. We adopted this approach when we became aware that complacency was setting in following a long period without suffering any injuries. It works for us!


Mark Wootton MA MInstLM

SNCO of 71 Sqn Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers at UK Ministry of Defence

Excellent article and a reminder to always go back to first principles especially if training others!


Azal Mohammed, PE, CSP

Process Safety Management | HSE Senior Consultant | Leadership, Knowledge, Change Management

This is a well written and thought-provoking article. The act of increasing reinforcement to sustain performance needs to include varying the frequency/type of reinforcement otherwise normalization of deviance can till creep back in.


Gerry Colverson

Independant health and safety consultant

I have read your blog and agree with the points you are making. You highlight two areas that I feel are generally not covered as well as they could be in the training given for would be safety advisers. The first is an understanding of data, its uses and misuses, and how widening the data collected can give valuable insights into the overall level of safety compliance and culture. People often fail to understand what they are measuring and what that data is telling them, either coming to conclusions that reinforce existing prejudices or hoarding the data as if it was a source of power not to be shared. 
The other area is that of managing people. Western industrial management practice is to focus on the product and the profit margins, almost to the exclusion of all else. This style of management is all about control of people and their behaviours by the use of detailed rules and penalties for failure to follow those rules. The history of management practices and the evolution of those practices is an interesting study and H&S people are also within the system and are influenced by the current management styles. 
Managing people requires the ability to understand what makes people behave as they do and demands a wide range of motivational skills as people are prone to variations in behaviour and can make mistakes. 
Thanks for the insights in your article.


Ron Richardson

Client Account Manager - Health and Safety Training

Complacency is human nature, just as we drive home from work everyday and never really think about, we just do it. Using complacency as an excuse is never acceptable, this is why it's so important to have continuous safety training to reinforce the proper actions and procedures on an ongoing basis, so we make sure everyone goes home at the end of the workday


Michael Burns CHST

Construction & Pipeline Safety Specialist

I'm still trying to absorb the whole article in my tiny brain, but it gave me many things to consider! Is it fair to say that if we see complacency creeping back in, we are not doing the things necessary or frequently enough to reinforce behavior? Do you have any suggestions on how to improve reinforcement or different variations that might help? I am now a subscriber!


Henrik Tived

Health and Safety Coordinator

Nice article, however if your conclusion on an incident investigation is "Complacency", then you need to ask yourself Why?

Why was the worker complacent?

Complacency is another silent killer in our workplaces


Michael Podgorny JP

Senior Consultant

We hear and see during many investigations the term "complacency" being used either orally or written in reports. It is a difficult and often subjective term to define and accurately diagnose. Because something does not go the way we would expect it or a person or object does not react and respond in a manner consistent with our interpretation...are they complacent?


John C. Budd, MBA

T&D Project Construction Manager

Thanks for the excellent read on human performance. A great reminder that all behavior is reinforced.


Dean Lailey MSO

Safety & Compliance Coordinator at Endurance Technologies Inc

Put another way......Incremental Justification- and throw in some Risk Homeostasis and look out!


Riaan Richards

Senior SHE Specialist at Anglo American Platinum

My view on complacency and why it is so difficult to manage is due to all the variables impacting on this. The moment you systemise it, then it becomes the new norm causing complacency to creep in. I think this requires a person with a "good feel" for what is happening on the operation and good analytical abilities to identify the slightest of trend from all the monitoring and measuring initiatives to identify complacency and respond accordingly. I also belief there are no one solution to managing this and it is changing constantly as an example seasonal, time of year etc


Hao Zhang

Project HSE manager

Habituation and complacency. 
When people stay in a work environment for long time, he will get used to everything around, which include hazard. If an office-based employee go to construction site occasionally, he will point out a lot unsafe findings; while site-based employee may just think it is overreacting. Frontline workers play with hazards all the time, their "threshold" for risk is quite high. There is always different opinion about probability from different background when we do risk assessment. So alarming bell like cross inspection, external audit, different viewpoint is very important as well as a "keep-away" stance. 
"He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster... when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you..." -- Friedrich Nietzsche


Rajarshi Ghosh

Unit Safety Manager- INDIA at Mott MacDonald

The hazards and the near misses are pointers,fact making us more aware of unsafe acts and conditions as a precursor to an accident. I do agree that complacency is one of the topmost causes of accidents and this needs to be managed quite effectively. However, complacency is something which could be quite relative as to how we percieve risks in general. Sometimes we need to make a choice. e.g. I cycle to office regularly manouvering through the city traffic which could be seen as a bad choice in terms of safety, but at the same contributing towards carbon footprint reduction in some way.So, as far as reasonably practicable in managing risks makes it more wide ranging in terms of both probability and severity!! However, fundamentally we must appreciate and encourage hazard spotting and Near miss reporting, because it goes without saying that it is good way to learn, or rather unlearn to get out of the complacent mode.

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