Expert Commentary

Unconscious Biases and Construction Safety

Unconscious biases are a fact of life. Research has shown that human judgment and decision-making are distorted by biases inherent to cognitive, motivational, and perceptual processes. This, in all likelihood, has some impact on the management of safety, and more broadly, it affects the resulting outcomes of construction companies. Biases can be both positive or negative, and everyone has them to some extent.


Construction Safety
August 2020

Biases fall into two general categories: our biases and the biases of others. Biases in our actions or perception tend to occur unconsciously. It is interesting to note that people tend to believe that their own perceptions reflect reality, and if others tend to see things differently (disagree with our position or thinking), then they must be biased. This results in the tendency of people to deny their own biases while recognizing biases in others, which leads to a serious deficiency in self-awareness and, to some degree, impacts our interaction with others.  

Conscious versus Automatic Mental Processes

We have one brain but two minds. One mind makes conscious choices based on careful consideration, self-reflection, insight, and observation—the mind of self-control. The other mind makes automatic choices based on past experience, habit, and/or instinct—the mind of impulse and habit. Neuroscientists propose that these two "minds" are supported by different neural circuits that activate thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Stress or pressure plays a role in activating the automatic neural circuitry while suppressing the conscious circuitry, thus making biases unconscious.

Every time a decision is made, the situations, circumstances, choices, and results are filed away for future reference. This information becomes voluminous. To expedite recovery of the information, it is stored in various "bins," and these bins are "labeled." The number of bins becomes large, and to improve efficiency, similar bins are put into one common bin. When a worker is faced with a decision (choice) and must do it quickly, the automatic system looks for information in these common bins. Over time, the content of these bins will have some information that is somewhat different from each other.

More times than not, exact information is not available, so similar information is considered, and if the one close to the situation worked before with no adverse effect, the action is initiated based on what is available. More times than not, there is no resulting adverse effect. That is why, when an accident does occur, the worker's natural reaction is, "I have done it 100 times before and did not have an accident," or "I don't understand, this should not have happened." This generally leads to statements such as, "That was a freak accident."

The Utility of Bias

In their daily lives, humans venture into the world and have to make choices or decisions about what is safe and what is not, what is desirable and what is not, what is appropriate and what is not, what is prudent and what is not, etc. This process can become overwhelming if everything is carefully studied and evaluated before action is taken. We also learn from experience that, in many cases, we must quickly make decisions or adverse outcome will occur while we are taking the time for contemplation and evaluation of the situation before making a decision or taking action.

The mind stores the results of all the past experiences involving situations or problems encountered and their resulting outcomes. So, when faced with having to make a choice, the brain first conducts a search of the stored information looking for one that is similar to the situation or problem at hand and selects the "best" one and acts or responds accordingly. This process is virtually automatic and takes almost no time at all. If nothing similar or even close is found, then the brain engages in the second cognitive process, which involves thinking about the situation or issue and weighing the pros and cons of the risk involved and the possible responses before deciding and taking action. This process takes more time.

The brain may be presented with hundreds or even thousands of bits of information at any given time. It has to decide what is critical and what is not. It also must be able to respond quickly, as well as efficiently. The mind of self-control (conscious choices) takes more time than the one that makes automatic choices. The automatic process frees up the brain to deal with more situations or solve more problems. It also takes less mental energy when making automatic choices. So, to avoid becoming overwhelmed as well as to be as efficient as possible, the automatic process becomes the method of choice.

Unconscious Bias in Construction

As construction work progresses, the physical environment or conditions change from day to day, hour by hour, and sometimes even minute by minute. As a result, the "risk picture" is in continual flux. This creates a situation where risk assessment must be made quickly to perform the work efficiently and maintain a reasonable level of production. This creates a level of pressure that promotes the automatic choosing mind process by necessity. As a result, this facilitates the utilization of unconscious biases that may lead to emotional decisions that color our interactions with other people. Some common workplace biases that may be applicable to construction are as follows.

  • Affinity bias. This is a tendency to feel another person has attributes like the ones we have, and therefore, we feel a connection with them. This becomes critical in recruitment and hiring practices. A foreman or superintendent may be more likely to hire a worker who he or she finds compatible, such as lives in the same area, went to the same high school, likes the same sports teams, etc. But none of this makes them the best fit for the position they are being interviewed for. In relationship to managing safety, the approach to one worker will, in all likelihood, be different than to another based on the affinity bias. Other workers may notice this and think the safety practitioner is playing favorites, which will decrease his or her overall effectiveness.
  • Perception bias. This is a tendency to harbor predetermined assumptions about certain types or groups of people. To some extent, this may hamper the ability to make impartial or objective assessments of the capability or competence of a worker. In the case of the safety practitioner, it may possibly hamper getting the safety message effectively across to everyone in the crew.
  • Confirmation bias. This is a tendency to seek information that confirms one's beliefs or expectations. In hiring, the person conducting the interview may ask leading questions to elicit responses that confirm their belief about the person being interviewed. This could also affect the results of an accident investigation. It may also hamper proper communication in conveying the appropriate safety message. For greater detail, see my article titled "Safety Myths and Wrongheaded Beliefs Prevalent in the Construction Industry," published in May 2013.
  • Halo effect. This involves the tendency to consider one mistake a person makes as rendering them totally incompetent or that some risk-taking improves efficiency. A foreman under pressure to get the work completed by a certain time may observe workers performing the work unsafely but may say nothing if they perceive that the task will be completed on time with possibly no adverse outcome. The halo effect may color the foreman's perception of the worker as inventive or an "outside-the-box thinker" rather than a risk-taker. In the case of the safety practitioner, it may interfere with the assessment of the seriousness of an observed safety infraction.
  • Groupthink. This is a situation where people wanting to be accepted by a group mimic the beliefs and positions taken by that group as a whole. In safety, if the crew performs its work in an unsafe manner, a person wanting to be accepted by that group may perform the work in the "unsafe" manner even if that person knows it is not the way the organization expects them to perform. For the safety practitioner to be able to deal with this situation effectively, they must be able to determine that this phenomenon is the driver of the behavior in order to be able to effectively deal with the problem rather than assuming the worker is not paying attention, needs safety training, etc.
  • Framing effect. This is the tendency to draw a different conclusion from the same information depending on how it is presented. The boss may believe one person over another just because they tell the "story" in a way that the boss expects to hear it. In the case of the safety practitioner, it may color their approach to interacting with the different members of a crew given similar situations or actions.
  • Bystander effect. This is a condition where individuals are less likely to aid someone when there are others present. In safety, the organization expects workers to intervene when they see another worker doing something that may get them injured by offering advice or input. The bystander effect may keep them from doing so because they may assume that one of the others in the area has probably already done so. Or they may think that since all the others did not intervene that maybe the observer is wrong in assuming that the act is unsafe and so he or she says or does nothing. For greater detail, see my article titled "Stop Work Authority and the Bystander Effect," published in July 2015.

Conclusion

Understanding and managing unconscious bias requires understanding, persistence, and practicing mindful thinking. Treating each individual with consideration and respect, one can evolve beyond their biases and engage with all people in a positive manner in any environment or situation. Knowledge of cognitive bias can enable leaders and managers to question their own reasoning so as to identify biases that increase risk or impact safety outcomes. They can improve their decision-making by putting this knowledge to use when planning, organizing, staffing, or directing, as well as controlling operations. Also, any employee may utilize this process or thinking when dealing with people mindfully or working more safely.

Leaders who are aware of their own biases and encourage others to do the same stand a good chance of improving the quality of safety outcomes on the job. While understanding that this may not revolutionize project processes, practices, or procedures, it will greatly improve outcomes. Cognitive bias won't change every decision a leader makes, but knowledge of its effects can inform, and more importantly, this effort will set the stage for a fundamental change in identifying, evaluating, and modifying risks in the project operational systems, resulting in improved safety outcomes.

Unconscious biases can have minimal or profound impacts on any organization and/or its people. The occurrence of unconscious biases can be an issue in any organization immaterial of its size or the industry it is in. Managers and leaders can make a positive contribution to their workplaces by rooting out and/or minimizing the unconscious biases that can undermine the outcomes of the day-to-day activities of the organization. By providing proper training and putting processes and structures in place that identify unconscious biases, organizations take positive steps to minimize harmful biases that can possibly impact every aspect of an organization.


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