Columns / Editorial Comments

A lesson from bin Laden

Yes, complacency can be a killer

November 1, 2012
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It makes you wonder at what point did that extra degree of vigilance he had get dulled by routine?”

“You can only be hyper-vigilant for so long. Did bin Laden go to sleep every night thinking, The next night they’re coming? Of course not. Maybe for the first year or two. But not now.”

These quotes from intelligence sources printed in articles in The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine make me think of one word that resonates in the job safety world — complacency.

Osama Bin Laden’s once-large entourage of Arab bodyguards was down to one trusted Pakistani courier and the courier’s brother. His hide-out as it were, an unusually large compound in a quiet neighborhood in Abbottaland, Pakistan, was not booby trapped, as U.S. special ops troops believed might be the case. The house had no escape tunnel, no false walls or hidden doors.

The man, according to intelligence sources, was perhaps stifled by monotony. Bored.

The safety connection

Sounds like the result of many a job in the workplace I can think of, especially after doing it for 10 or more years. That’s about how long bin Laden was on the run.

Bin Laden was not prepared for the kind of attack the commandos carried out. Only one man in the compound the night of the attack was armed. The Americans had expected several more men to be in the house. The only shots fired came in the beginning of the raid. When the one man shooting was killed by commando gunfire, the Americans were never fired upon again.

The house of course did have security precautions in place. A locked metal gate blocked the base of the staircase leading to the second floor. A metal gate blocked all access to bin Laden’s bedroom. The third floor where bin Laden lived had windows only one on of its four sides, and they were opaque. Four of the five windows were merely slits above eye level. The concrete walls of the compound were unusually thick, between 12 to 18-feet high and topped with barbed wire. A solid metal door on one of the compounds exterior walls was blown off its hinges by commandos, who were greeted by a large brick wall.

Despite these precautions, “The aging bin Laden may have grown complacent or tired during his decade on the run; he had no real escape plan,” said Time magazine.

Countering complacency

What do you do about employees who are complacent when it comes to their own safety on the job? When they have done the job for so long they can put themselves on automatic pilot? When they have done a job for so long it has become monotonous, and they may be fatigued after the years, tired and bored.

I recall being called into the CEO’s office of my then-publishing company back in the 1990s. Let me be clear I am not talking about my current employer, BNP Media. I was chair of the company’s editorial board. That is what gained me entrance. The CEO was new. “You know what, this place is complacent,” he told me. “It’s sleepy time down south here.” His solution: fire old execs and bring in the new.

Let’s take a football coach as another example. When he senses his team is becoming complacent, after a big win or series of victories, he comes down hard. It is a cliché in football, as well as other sports, that coaches are much harder on their teams after victories than they are after defeats. After a loss or series of losses, it is time to pump up the troops. Restore their morale. It is the very opposite of complacency, of losing one’s edge.

I have heard the saying, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” The same can and has been said about job safety.

How do you keep a workforce constantly vigilant, about their own safety and the safety of their co-workers? I do not believe you can. It is exhausting. There are always distractions. We are human. We do not possess the concentration of chess masters. Sustainability of safety programs and safety attention and focus is a serious issue not often enough explored in books or workshops.

It’s the culture

I believe you have to expect lapses in concentration, in so-called situational awareness. A safety person alone cannot be everywhere, always on alert, eyes and ears covering the entire workplace. This is the old policing the entire workplace, if you like, constantly on the lookout.

Police on patrol in vehicles, especially in what we could call “hazardous” neighborhoods, usually have partners. One has the other’s back. And it works both ways.

Those 23 Navy SEALS who stormed bin Laden’s compound were so tight of a team, a team filled with mutual trust and respect, they considered each other brothers.

In the sports world, a coach can shout and scream about complacency, but he can’t go out on the field and play. In the huddle, in the locker room, it is up to the players to respect and listen to the team leaders, to talk between themselves, and in the end make the collective decision that complacency must not get in the way of the team’s goals.

A safety manager is like a coach. Some literally call themselves coaches, not policemen or women, not strictly rules enforcers or certainly not middle manager paper-pushers and record keepers.

A safety manager, like a sports coach, or a CEO, can talk until he or she is blue in the face. They can dole out discipline. They can outline the safety game plan, its objectives and goals.

But it takes a team of workers to tackle complacency. To keep a watch out. To observe. Maybe call out someone, like in the locker room, who is not paying attention, who thinks “accidents just happen.” Whose complacency puts not only themselves but other team members at risk.

Complacency about job safety is a tough issue. “Oh, we haven’t had a serious accident around here in years.” I’ll say this: it will take more than a single person, yourself perhaps, to counter complacency. You need a culture of safety that employees have bought into. Certain sports teams have a culture that does not tolerate complacency. So can companies, and some in fact do.

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