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Forgetting to Be Afraid
May 01, 2019
A construction worker is building scaffolding on the thirtieth floor of a downtown high-rise. He is wearing his harness, but it is unclipped. On a highway construction project, a crew continues operating an off-road dump truck even after noticing that its back-up alarm is broken. Using a handheld grinder, a trade partner cuts thick, metal pipe without lowering her face shield.
Each of these choices could result in catastrophic injuries, or worse, the loss of life. In the aftermath of every safety incident, construction companies ask the same alarming but seemingly unanswerable questions: why well-trained and often experienced workers roll the dice, bend the rules and knowingly put themselves or their teammates in harm’s way.
Increasingly, safety experts cite a cause known as “safety creep.” Much like scope creep, an industry term commonly defined as the continuous growth or change in the scope of a project beyond its original intent, safety creep is rooted in a gradual acceptance of added risk.
Safety creep occurs when jobsite leaders allow teams to tolerate incremental danger. It’s a toxic mindset that invades team cultures, behaviors and individual attitudes about safety.
Perhaps a project’s general superintendent observes an electrician working without fall protection on a ladder that is eight feet above the ground. Since the worker is only two feet above Balfour Beatty’s requirement, he chooses not to address the infraction.
Or a backhoe operator excavates inside the tolerance zone of an underground utility line without first hand digging or pot holing. If senior on-site officials observe the hazard and remain silent—and the operator avoids a utility strike—the worker is likely to repeat the same risky actions.
Are these workers being careless? Complacent? Favoring speed over safety? Absolutely! But worst of all, they have simply forgotten to be afraid.
Often, safety creep happens so subtly that organizations fail to notice. One of those organizations was BP, which ignored countless red flags before committing the worst oil spill in U.S. history that cost 11 workers their lives. In the aftermath of the accident known as “Deepwater Horizon,” investigators attempted to identify why a veteran crew that had gone seven years without a single serious safety incident ignored such troubling conditions leading up to the spill. The root cause? Safety creep.
In 1986, just 73 seconds into its flight, the Challenger space shuttle broke apart, killing all seven crew members. Following the disaster, sociologist Diane Vaughan sought to understand why NASA made the decision to launch despite the vehement objections of its own engineers. Vaughan determined that NASA had, over time, engaged in a process she coined the “normalization of deviance”—redefining evidence that deviates from the current acceptable safety standard so that it becomes the new standard. In other words, becoming desensitized to increasing levels of danger.
Safety creep is a leading reason construction workers ages 55 and over have experienced the highest number of workplace fatalities since the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) began tracking age data in 1992. Although countless new safeguards exist since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was formed in 1970, nearly five decades later, fatalities have remained largely flat. Paradoxically, safeguards have made workers less afraid.
The safety creep phenomenon isn’t unique to corporations or people who work in high-risk industries. Despite well-established dangers, distracted driving and driving under the influence continue to result in avoidable loss of life. Many drivers or passengers simply fail to buckle up, falsely assuming airbags alone will protect them.
At Balfour Beatty, we prevent safety creep by ensuring every person—no matter their rank or role—is empowered to speak up when they observe or experience a situation that doesn’t feel right. We call this program “See Something, Say Something.”
By fostering a culture in which questioning the perceived order is always encouraged and never penalized, we make our daily work routines safer. And most importantly, we remind workers that there is power, strength and significance in never forgetting to be afraid.
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