One of the real head-scratchers in the realm of workplace safety is the reality that such a large percentage of accidents, especially serious ones, happen to experienced workers. Common sense would dictate that newer, younger, less trained workers would make the most mistakes leading to injury.

It has become widely accepted that complacency is a major challenge for the old hand, especially on a more or less routine task. Unplug the brain, zone out, rely on habit to get it done. “I’ve done this job thousands of times… I could do it in my sleep... nothing to worry about.” Such reduced vigilance and mindfulness is indeed a major challenge to safe work, especially in the experienced. The problem is compounded by some common habits of mind that encourage us to feel safer than we actually are in hazardous situations.

Irrational decisions

The developing field of “behavioral economics,” drawing on research going back as far as the 1960s, has shown and continues to show that our decision-making processes are in fact strongly influenced by a variety of biases that cause us to behave… well, irrationally.

Say you walk up to a roulette table in Vegas, and note that the ball has landed on a red number the last five times in a row. Time to place a load of chips on black… right? The strong, sometimes overwhelming sense that it’s got to be black is fallacious. It is in fact known as “the gambler’s fallacy.” Like the flip of a coin, the red-or-black outcomes are independent events, equally likely each time (setting aside for a moment the pesky 0 or 00 options, which help the house stay profitable). The likelihood of the next outcome being black is exactly the same as the likelihood of the next outcome being red, even if the previous 10 or 20 (or more) outcomes have been red.

Say you drove to Vegas from Los Angeles. That trip was much safer than if you flew… right? It certainly feels that way. Well, statistically speaking, no. The odds of dying in a plane crash (especially a domestic commercial carrier… the numbers get funky if we include small private planes and third-world airlines) are vastly less than the odds of dying in a car crash, even if we equate the number of miles covered. 

It may be the very rarity of the event (plane crash compared to fatal car crash) and the associated vividness of the news coverage that makes a plane crash so much more salient and memorable than a car crash. It may be the perceived control in the car vs. lack of control as the airline passenger. But whatever the cause, our brain confidently tells us to worry about the one and not the other. 

The biased brain

The bottom line is, we are not “rational man.” Our intuitions and strong inclinations are often biased, to the point that they make us behave just the opposite of rational man. We know X, but we just feel Y.

In general, we are prone to consistently underestimate the risk to ourselves, no matter the situation. Some people smoke cigarettes, overindulge in alcohol, take dangerous and addictive drugs, even though they know the statistics. They take known risks, with the comforting self-serving delusion that it won’t happen to them.

Discounting the data

It’s that way with our safety in the workplace. We know that there have been injuries to workers in our industry, maybe in our company, doing the same work that we do. We know that injury rates in some industries (e.g., construction) are much higher than in others. We may even have had an accident ourselves. And we know that the data tell us that experienced workers on a routine task are still at risk, even more than the new guy doing something unfamiliar. But we have the strong sense that we are in control of our work, we are careful, and it just won’t happen to us, or not again. Other guys, yes. Maybe they got complacent; maybe they got in a hurry and cut corners. But not us. Until we get hurt. And the mantra of the accident investigation is essentially always the same”… yes, I was trained… the proper PPE was available… I knew better… I just wasn’t thinking….”

Whatever combination of irrational biases may be in operation, it is essential to fight the sense that “it can’t happen to me.” The data show over and over that indeed it can. And long years of experience are not any guarantee of safe work. Statistically speaking… it’s quite the contrary.