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Construction Safety

Managing Complacency in Construction

Peter Furst | April 28, 2017

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To combat construction complacency and build enthusiasm, management must create ways to motivate employees and improve their job satisfaction. Recognizing and rewarding employees for good work or making the work more challenging and rewarding are two ways to improve their job satisfaction.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 11th ed., defines complacency as a feeling of "self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies." Complacency might result from what psychologists refer to as "confirmation bias"—this is the tendency to look for or interpret information in a way that confirms with currently held beliefs. This is especially common to people who take risk and experience no adverse effect.

Workers who take shortcuts and, as a result, are able to complete the work faster, or produce more work in a given time period, drivers who speed to gain time and not get into accidents or get a speeding citation, or cheaters who game the system and don't get caught, and the list goes on. These people are lulled into risk-taking believing that an adverse event "won't happen to them."

Complacency in the workforce can adversely impact an organization in multiple ways. Employees who take their jobs for granted, who just aren't motivated to do better, can prevent the company from achieving excellence in operations, exceed customer expectations, and/or ultimately operate profitably. For many reasons, a significant number of people find it difficult to stay enthused about their work. This may lead to changing jobs. But it may also lead to complacency resulting in inferior performance at the job they have. This is sometimes referred to as being mentally absent from work.

Construction complacency is usually referred to when talking about the workforce. It is one of the factors mentioned when workers get injured at work. Phrases like: he was not paying attention and, as a result, got injured, didn't focus on the task at hand, was rushing, forgot to use common sense, got frustrated, etc. All of these are mentioned from time to time as the reason for the worker getting injured. The problem with such an assessment is that the cause of the injury rests with the worker and this ultimately triggers traditional interventions such as training, catching the worker exhibiting these behaviors during inspections, and trying to correct it by providing feedback, coaching, counseling, or ultimately using rewards or disciplinary action. This is sometimes perceived as the "main" thrust of the safety manager's job—"keeping the good people safe."

Dr. David Sirota conducted considerable research (over 4 million workers worldwide) into why people become complacent and demotivated at work. He found that most people start out enthusiastic about their work. They work hard so as to succeed and thrive in their jobs. High enthusiasm at work usually translates into eagerness and a willingness to work hard. But, in the long run, employees become complacent, demotivated, demoralized, and lose their enthusiasm, which may result either in leaving the organization for another one or they do enough work to just get by. This is highly detrimental to the organization's success.

Dr. Sirota found that this was mostly caused by bad practices, deficient procedures, misaligned goals, and unintegrated systems as well as poor conditions within the organization. This is virtually correctable by management action or intervention.

Management and supervision must treat the workers fairly and equitably. They should enable the workers to succeed by doing proper planning, coordinating, expediting, staffing, directing, and controlling. They should also try to make the work meaningful so that employees feel they are learning and improving as well as seeing opportunities for growth and advancement in the organization.

The Risk of Complacency

Complacency has many negative outcomes that are injurious to the organization. There are many examples of this. Take Deep Water Horizon, for example. The president's commission reported that the root cause of the fatal explosion and subsequent massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the result of a culture of complacency. There were numerous warning signs that were ignored, a failure to share information with others in the organization, and a general lack of concern associated with the risks involved and its acceptance.

The two NASA shuttle explosions are another classic example of complacency, where information was not shared, warnings from engineers were ignored, and risks were underestimated, discounted, and ignored, which led to the two horrific disasters.

This culture of complacency can affect any organization, worksite, or work group where the primary focus is on meeting production goals as well as accepting standards creep. This is especially true of construction companies where the schedule is the primary tool to drive production and measure performance. In such a culture, speed is valued and rewarded. In many cases, there is a continual pressure for greater speed and ever increasing the production output without due consideration for capacity or capability. This, in many cases, results in the workers taking shortcuts or risks to achieve goals and/or meet expectations.

This culture of complacency develops over time with each risk taken without an adverse effect and results in the acceptance of more risk. This leads to the normalization of deviance. See my article on "Normalization of Performance Deviations" (August 2014). This reinforces the fact that all levels of management in an organization must be on the "lookout" for standards creep, where production trumps protection and a culture of complacency, as well as risk taking, becomes the norm.

The Types of Risk

Let's take a look at risk from a different perspective. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was supposed to have looked at risk from four unique perspectives: "known-knowns," "unknown-knowns," "known-unknowns," and the "unknown-unknowns."

The "known-known" risks are those that the workers as well as management are familiar with and have performed their work in those "at-risk" situations many, many times with no adverse effects or negative outcome. Since they have successfully performed work in those conditions, they have become used to it and have come to accept those risks as "normal." This acceptance of certain risks has in effect increased the body or risk that the worker is now working under. The increased acceptance of risk has, therefore, enhanced the likelihood of a negative outcome occurring and may be considered a form of complacency.

The "unknown-known" risks are those risks that the particular worker has not encountered before or does not expect to encounter in that particular task or circumstance. Therefore, that worker is going to prosecute the work without the expectation of being exposed to those kinds of hazards (risks). Such a situation may arise when a circular saw may get bound in a deflecting (bending) piece of lumber or when encountering a knot and a "kicking-back" occurs. The resulting accident may be attributed to the worker's inattentiveness that may be characterized as complacency.

The "known-unknown" risks are those that are taken on by many construction companies by not performing any form of risk assessment before bidding the work and by field operations when not making an effort to assess certain risks while planning the work, selecting means and methods, procuring subcontractors, and setting up the job as well as hiring the workforce, making task assignments, and directing the work. Effectively, these folks take on work knowing that there are risks and expecting the safety function to find them and somehow deal with them without affecting the production process. This is like putting a bullet into the cylinder of a revolver, spinning the cylinder, and then pulling the trigger, fully expecting nothing to happen.

The "unknown-unknown" risks are probably the most dangerous. These are the ones that, after an accident occurs, everyone is scratching their heads muttering that this just should not have happened. They are sometimes referred to as "freak accidents" and may be risks that were present but not discovered or ignored due to circumstance or pressures. These could also be residual risks that are left in the operating system after the organization makes an effort to find and deal with existing risks.

The Signs of Complacency

There are many signs of employee complacency that managers and supervisors should be looking for in order to try and control its creation as well as its adverse effect. One sure sign of complacency is when employees stop being actively engaged in their work by not asking questions, seeking clarification, or offering suggestions to improve the processes and affect the resulting outcome. One reason for this may be the fear of being labeled as obstructive, not being a team player, challenging supervision's authority, or fearful of losing one's job.

Another sign of complacency is disengagement, which is when workers do enough to get by. Also, it is when employees stop taking the initiative to solve problems, work cooperatively in moving the project's goals forward, or work hard at their tasks. When employees lose their passion for their responsibilities and no longer exhibit any excitement for their work, they stop leading and become followers. As a result, they become underproductive or unproductive, and their attitude invariably affects the whole crew. This results in the employees' failure to add value to the operations and ultimately negatively impact the organization.

Complacency can also manifest itself when employees begin to take shortcuts in their assigned work. They stop being thorough, detail-oriented, and over time they become lazy. They become disruptive to the work culture and a liability to operations. Playing it safe is another face of complacency. Workers lose their incentive to take reasonable risks to further their careers and organizational goals. Some of this may be the result of work that is repetitive and unchallenging. Some of this may be attributed to the fact that the employees do not see any potential for growth or promotion. Rightly or wrongly, employees may perceive that playing it safe is in their best interest rather than being an active team member. These are strong warning signs that they are physically present but mentally absent in their work.


There are some safety practitioners who have determined that complacency results when a worker's mind is not on the task and they get hurt. This is commonly referred to as the eye wandering off the task. So, they try to come up with tools and techniques to provide to workers so that they may overcome this particular state or situation. They propose that the worker learn to continually focus on the task they are engaged in. What these folks ignore is that it is virtually impossible for a human to work 8 or 10 hours fully and totally concentrate on the task at hand.

The human mind does not function that way. The mind can concentrate for maybe up to about 20 minutes before it invariably phases out for a few minutes. The length of the concentration period also depends on a host of different factors, such as the task being intrinsically motivating, enjoyable, its complexity, difficulty, or the individual feeling stressed, hunger, being tired, the environment being noisy, other distractions of one kind or another, or the person's emotional state, to name a few.

Humans are influenced in their cognitions by a number of conflicting emotional and motivational factors. Cognitive processes include perception, recognition, imagining, remembering, thinking, judging, reasoning, problem-solving, conceptualizing, and planning. These cognitive processes can emerge from human language, thought, imagery, and symbols. As an example, humans cannot totally "shut out" or ignore people speaking to them or around them. Activation in the brain starts up automatically to process the information.

A research study found that drivers who were told to ignore any talking by others while driving found that they couldn't ignore the speaking because the processing of spoken language is so automatic that you can't turn it off. You can't will yourself not to understand a speaker; it just gets processed automatically. This secondary processing may dramatically reduce the attention given to driving.

After an accident or some negative outcome is studied, complacency may be listed as a contributing factor. Complacency is a state of mind and could very well be a contributing factor, but, generally, the selected interventions to impact and change this invariably fall short of effectively dealing with it. And the focus on getting people to "think" before doing something usually will not work as planned.

One thing to remember is that behaviors that are habitual are generally not subject to complacency and do not need any special attention to be paid to them. An example of this would be putting on seatbelts in cars. This is generally done automatically because it is a habit and people generally do not need any special conscious triggers to "make it happen." So, one possible approach may be working on making safe work a habitual endeavor. However, some risks associated with changed conditions may interfere with this.


Complacency is, in fact, a risk, and there are only a few methods in dealing with risk. These are risk avoidance, acceptance and monitoring, transfer, reducing the impact, or reducing its likelihood. The first few mentioned are either impractical or ineffective. The ones that may garner some form of a positive result are reducing the impact or, better yet, reducing the likelihood of those risks occurring. One organizational approach is to make risk assessment a structured and integrated part of planning. In construction, risk should be identified and assessed every time a contractor considers taking on a construction project. It should be considered during the estimating process, operational planning process, means and methods selection process, pricing process, subcontractor selection process, staff assignment process, organizational structure, selected work processes, tools and techniques used, technology selection, control methods, goal and objective setting, workforce capability, skill, experience, and motivation, to name a few. See my article "Managing Construction Risk through Pre-Operational Planning" (September 2006).

The likelihood of complacency will decrease if an organization creates a culture that embraces enterprise-wide risk management. See my articles "Enterprise Safety Management: Creating a Framework" (January 2008) and "Enterprise Safety Management: Creating an Injury-Free Workplace" (September 2007). Functionally, such an organization is structured to be more responsive to risks and their treatments if dealing with risk is a part of all planning, organizing, directing, staffing, and controlling as it regards every aspect of the project-delivery process and has some form of confirmation element that is carefully adhered to as well as managed.

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