Safety Culture Blog

Complacency shouldn't be your Exit Strategy

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

I don’t know how it happened.  I guess I just got complacent and before I knew it I was in trouble”. 

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 when the blades suddenly regained motion.  When you ask someone like Jack or the many others who experience a close call you tend to hear some version of the word “complacency” as an explanation for their action. Likewise, frustrated managers who have to investigate incidents scratch their head when they suspect “human error” as the cause of the event and then blame the worker for being complacent.  Go and look at your incident investigation forms. 

Taken as a whole it seems like complacency is pervasive – the #1 cause of injury.  How often does “complacency” show up as one of the causes attributed to the injury or close call?

Not only is complacency seemingly a big cause of personal injury, it shows up frequently in process safety incidents.  So much so that my friend and fellow behavior scientist & practitioner Cloyd Hyten wrote an article on the topic for our research journal, the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, in hopes of building a research agenda on the topic to help you folks in the field get a grip on complacency.  The article is titled: Complacency in Process Safety:  A Behavior Analysis toward Prevention Strategies and you can contact me through if you’d like a copy.  Incidentally, this article also appears in a book on Process Safety we put out titled: Sources of Behavioral Variance in Process Safety: Analysis and Intervention.    The book is available through Taylor and Francis publishing house and a link for it appears on in the books tab.

Habituation is more than just habits

Common wisdom suggests complacency is built up over time as we work a process over and over coming into contact with the hazards of the job over and over.  When we face clear hazards frequently a process called “Habituation” may take over. 

“HABIT (your Habits take over) UATION (the Situation)”. 

When we habituate to a situation we go on a type of autopilot and our ability to notice changes in the hazard, or perhaps your own behavior, fades.

Consider hazards your workers are exposed to all day, every day.  When I visit your worksites your hazards are new to me.  I experience a fear response when I ride down into an open mine on a haul truck or when I’m a couple feet from a flaming cauldron of hell in a steel mill.  My body produces a flight reaction because there are things that can kill or maim me.  There I am shaking in my steel toes on these visits while my hosts and their workers are doing their jobs all around me as calm as cucumbers.  I’m reminded of the famous photograph taken in 1932 of iron workers building the Empire State Building casually sitting on an I-beam far above the Manhattan skyline eating lunch.

Workers’ bodies have habituated to these environments. Habituation is when you experience lower and lower levels of physiological and emotional response as you come in contact with a frequently repeated hazard or other scary stimulus.  If you go day-after-day interacting with a hazard without an incident the body’s response lessens, as does the perception of fear.

Some level of habituation may be necessary for workers in high-hazard jobs to complete their tasks.  I remember once being frozen with fear on the top of a 20-foot ladder while hiking a high mountain.  My fear response locked me up shaking and exposed me to greater risks of falling with each passing second.  If the ironworkers toiling at great heights always reacted with trembling fear they could not be productive and probably would put themselves greater at risk traversing around with a tense body.  To work around hazards we need to habituate so we are not encumbered by the fear response.

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.

However, a little bit of fear around hazards is always necessary.  It keeps us alert and primed for emergency.  A tad of fear makes us more aware of our behaviors and in tune with the potential severe consequences that could happen.  Unfortunately, we can’t consciously regulate habituation to make it useful. It is an automatic process. Similarly, since we notice hazards less, they can no longer influence us to take extra precautions for safety. 

Yet, we blame those, including ourselves, who habituate to hazards and get hurt or escape with a close call.  We simplify and say that we have become complacent in our tasks.   The problem is that we really don’t know what “complacency” is or what to do about it.

Complacency is not a Mystery

Unfortunately, just labeling someone as “complacent” does not lead us to a solution that reduces the risks.  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. 

Let’s look at the scientific term “Acquisition” with an understanding of this simple fact: Behavior seeks out reinforcement.

Remember when you first learned a complex task, perhaps one that put you in the presence of hazards?  You needed to follow a process pretty closely to avoid risk and do the task correctly.  In the beginning of your learning curve you were not very good at the task 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.  And you got safer doing the task because you reduced your behavioral variance. 

This process of shaping occured 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 were a number of reinforcers that shaped your behavior. 

The ONLY reason you reduced your behavioral variance in that task is because you got reinforced for doing it that way, the non-reinforced behaviors melted away.  Remember, “behavior seeks out reinforcement”.  Once behavior finds reinforcement, a vacuum is created sucking all behavior toward the reinforcement.

You systematically started doing things right, getting more and more reinforcement along the way. After a short time you performed 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 mastery zone… where you want to be, where you want everyone to be.

Ok, now we got you where you need to be, safe and productive.  But there is another scientific term, on that is the opposite of Acquisition, that seeps in and causes what we call “complacency”.

Extinction occurs when behavior stops being reinforced and, well, that behavioral fire is “extinguished”; the desired behaviors slowly stop happening, often without us even being aware.  Why do the desired behaviors stop?  Because “behavior seeks out reinforcement.” When the reinforcement stops behavior seeks out new reinforcers.

Complacency is a lack of reinforcement.  

When behavior is no longer reinforced they go seeking reinforcement just like they did when you acquired the skill. 

It is now that we start seeing small variations in the way 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 these new behaviors find reinforcement.   Perhaps its that small bit of social interaction, escape from boredom, a quicker procedure, one that’s more confortable or convenient… there are plenty of social, simple, and systemic reinforcers out there waiting to pull behavior off its path.  Behaviors will find the reinforcers and cause variance.  And then the new variance sticks.   It starts small at first but then gets bigger and bigger… unbeknownst, sometimes, to the performer.  

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.

One only needs to look into the research surrounding Normalization of Deviance to see this phenomenon in action.  Some friends of mine at Marathon Refining wrote an article on normalization of deviance with me for the aforementioned book on Process Safety titled: “An Industry’s Call to Understand the Contingencies involved in Process Safety:  Normalization of Deviance and Interlocking Contingencies.”  Again, you can find a link to the book in the books tab on

SO… how do you fight complacency?

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

This does not mean you get the supplier websites open to find swag for safety incentives (not a good idea).  Reinforcement is cheap.  A simple thumbs up from a supervisor or corrective feedback from a peer will work.  Even a simple completed checklist can work if followed up by social feedback.  Don’t let the powerful social environment cause variance by reinforcing idle chit chat.  Use the social arena to offer “spot check” reinforcers to keep variance in check.

You also want to design your tasks and processes so that they limit the variance that comes from finding a simpler way.  Listen to your workers when they find a simpler way and use the social reinforcers to constantly shape the safe behaviors as tasks naturally migrate toward simplicity.

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.  Yes, a big part of behavioral safety is reinforcing safe behaviors… not just correcting at-risk behaviors.

We are in a constant fight against complacency.  Fortunately we have a very strong tool in reinforcement.  If you’ve built the culture where a large percentage of your workforce is actively out there reinforcing safe behaviors then your right on track.

If your only relying on training to shape up behaviors and then stop the ongoing reinforcing feedback… well remember, extinction means to exit reinforcement’s influence.  Don’t let complacency be your exit strategy. 

Articles and Books cited (contact Dr. Ludwig for copies or links):

Ludwig, T.D. (Ed.) (2018). Sources of Behavioral Variance in Process Safety: Analysis and Intervention.  Taylor & Francis: London.

Hyten, C. & Ludwig, T.D. (2017).  Complacency in Process Safety:  A Behavior Analysis toward Prevention Strategies.  Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. 37, 240-260.

Bogard, K., Ludwig, T.D., Staats, C., & Kretchmer, D. (2015).  An Industry’s Call to Understand the Contingencies involved in Process Safety:  Normalization of Deviance and Interlocking Contingencies.  Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 35, 70-80