Countering cognitive fallacies that increase workers’ risk of injury

Date Posted: 01/02/2024
Emergency Stop Button

If workers understood probability, they wouldn’t buy lottery tickets. For a variety of reasons, humans overestimate the potential for positive outcomes and underestimate risk. All humans are prone to cognitive fallacies, usually without realizing it. You might recognize some of these common fallacies relevant to workplace safety:

  1. We overestimate our abilities and knowledge. For example, most drivers consider themselves safer than average, which is not statistically possible.
  2. We like to believe that we have control over circumstances. Even an emergency stop button can cause people to accept greater risk by providing a sense of control over outcomes.
  3. The longer we engage in unsafe behaviors without consequences, the more we underestimate the risk. We also tend to focus on (or hope for) positive outcomes, which is one reason that people buy lottery tickets.

Employers could address these fallacies during training. Since they involve irrational or emotional thinking, countering them with logic is not always effective. However, trainers could help workers recognize and avoid them. Trainers might even take advantage of them during training.

Overestimating ability

To help trainees recognize the first item, ask if they think their work habits are safer than average. Since everyone cannot be above average, ask what they consider the baseline for “average.” If that means following safety rules all the time, then “above average” must require going beyond the rules, like actively noticing and correcting hazards.

Point out that above-average drivers maintain constant awareness, plan for contingencies, and can handle emergencies like a blown tire. An above-average driver would not multi-task by eating, talking on the phone, or adjusting the GPS while on the road. So what behaviors would characterize an above-average safety employee?

Illusion of control

To illustrate the second item, ask trainees if they wear specific items of clothing during football games to “help” their teams win. This should prove both amusing and relatable, but it shows how people sometimes make irrational connections between their behavior and outcomes.

Workers can exert control over outcomes, but they must take proactive preventative measures. Exercising control after an accident by pushing a stop button is a reaction, not a preventative control behavior. Ask what behaviors are within their control that reduce their risk of injury, beyond wearing personal protective equipment.

Likely consequences

On the third item, explain that trends do not predict outcomes. If someone engages in unsafe behaviors without adverse consequences, they tend to downplay the risk. However, risk or probability doesn’t change based on historical trends. For example, the risk of getting cut when using a table saw does not decrease just because it never happened before.

The adage “familiarity breeds contempt” could describe workers who frequently face hazards and start to downplay the risk. However, avoiding injuries requires more than misplaced faith that nothing bad will happen. Following safe practices can decrease the risk.

Using fallacies in training

Finally, since emotion impacts the perception of risk, an emotional story is more persuasive than statistics. Although we hope for positive outcomes, a story about an employee who suffered a serious injury has more impact than listing statistics on the number of such injuries per year. Using stories to illustrate risk helps make the danger feel “real” and relatable. Trainers can use this fallacy to their advantage by sharing stores rather than statistics.

How Safety Management Suite Can Help

To make training more effective, it should be relatable and memorable so employees apply what they learned on the job. Using ready-made content requires some modifications to fit your workplace, but provides a starting point that can save time. The Training area of the J. J. Keller® SAFETY MANAGEMENT SUITE provides numerous resources that you can modify to meet your needs, including handouts that new hires can take and reference later.

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