Editorial: Don't Get Complacent

February
,
2018

This issue’s Spotlight on Safety (p. 43) author, John Herber, reminds us of the need to maintain a sense of vulnerability. This need is so critical that the first tenet of the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) Vision 2020 is a committed culture in which all employees maintain a sense of vigilance and vulnerability. Although previous CEP articles and Process Safety Beacons have dealt with this topic (see list of articles at the end), it bears revisiting.

Researchers Laura Fruhen and Rhona Flin of the Univ. of Aberdeen refer to the sense of vulnerability as chronic unease, which they define as “a state of psychological strain in which an individual experiences discomfort and concern about the control of risks.” They believe that managers may benefit from maintaining a level of discomfort or psychological strain. Doing so may lead them to think about the root of their discomfort in more detail and from more angles, and may prompt them to question assumptions and consider multiple sources of information in their evaluation of the issue causing them to be uneasy. Chronic unease can guide managers to think critically about risk management and the issues involved.

Avoiding complacency is essential to fostering a sense of vulnerability. Because high-consequence events (like plant explosions) are so rare, we can easily be lulled into complacency. John Braun, co-owner of Signature Safety, writes on his blog: “Complacency occurs when you’ve been doing something one way for so long without incident that you assume there can never be an incident. Whatever it is that you’re doing must be effective because, until now, there have been no issues. It’s the classic ‘I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years, and nothing has ever happened to me’ syndrome. This frustrates safety professionals because we know that nothing ever happens to anybody — until it does.”

Safety consultant Larry Wilson calls complacency the silent killer. He points out that everyone gets complacent about things they do over and over, and when that happens, the mind can wander. “If you’re not thinking about what you’re doing, your behavior will be what it normally is. And it will change only if you make a conscious effort to change it,” he says. He notes that it is important to get people to work on their safety-related habits, such as moving your eyes before you move your hands, feet, body, or car; testing your footing or grip before you commit your weight to it; looking at your “second foot” as you step over something that you could trip on; and habitually looking for vehicles approaching blind intersections.

Like many others, I often find my daily commute a source of tedium. As I move through the familiar tunnels and busy crowds of Penn Station on my way to and from work, it would be easy to become complacent. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign encourages commuters to be alert and report suspicious activities to the police. The frequent messages it broadcasts throughout the transit system (together with the armed police and bomb-sniffing dogs) help me maintain a sense of vulnerability, and they help break the cycle of complacency that many commuters fall into.

Herber writes that his increased sense of vulnerability prompted him to pay more attention to the safety video on a recent flight. I plan to follow his example when I fly to Orlando, FL, in April to attend the Spring Meeting and Global Congress on Process Safety (p. 57). I hope you will join us — at the conference, and in the habit of watching the safety videos on all of your future flights.

YPOV: Lessons Learned from Process Safety Incidents (and Near Misses), Nov. 2017, p. 22

Spotlight on Safety: Keeping a Sense of Vulnerability, Aug. 2013, p. 25

Process Safety Beacon: Remembering Piper Alpha, July 2013, p. 15

Process Safety Beacon: Process Safety Culture, June 2007, p. 21

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Author Bios: 

Cynthia Mascone

Cindy Mascone is Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Engineering Progress, AIChE’s member magazine. She has more than 25 years of experience as a technical editor and writer, including four years as the head of her own freelance consulting business, Engineered Writing. Previously, she worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards.

She holds a BS in chemical engineering and engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon Univ., and has been an active member of AIChE and Society of Women Engineers....Read more

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