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Why Workplace Incidents and Errors Tend to Happen Late in Jobs


Think about home improvement projects and daily tasks such as cleaning out the gutters, building a deck or texting while driving.  What could possibly go wrong?  For texting, the answer is obvious (and of course, you would never do it, would you?). For cleaning gutters, falling off a ladder is unfortunately fairly common.  For building a deck, it might involve an infliction of pain and bodily injury due to improper saw or hammer use.  Do you think accidents like these happen at the beginning or end of the project?  Trouble tends to rear its ugly head toward the end.  Why?  If we take a look at the beginning of the project what typically happens is the homeowner is mindful and purposeful in what he is doing.  When cleaning the first side of the house’s gutters he moves the ladder every 2-3’ instead of doing extended reaching and putting himself at risk for falling.  As time goes on and nothing happens, this same homeowner starts to reach out a little bit more, after all so far so good, so why not cover just a little more distance.  A little more reach saves a little time which means he can go do what he really wants to go (maybe watch that baseball game).  Or perhaps, he’s feeling really confident since everything has gone so well up to this point clearing the other portions of the gutters.  It is at this point when, whether it is to save time, over confidence or just “not thinking” he reaches too far and falls off the ladder.  


The lesson and point of this story is injuries tend to happen late in jobs—when people have done something for a while without experiencing a bad outcome.  This is known as “normalization” which often manifests itself when people’s standards lessen in the name of greater speed.  A formal definition would be “the gradual process through which unacceptable practice or standards become acceptable.”


Texting while driving may be an even better example.  The risks of doing this are obvious, however, most of us are probably guilty of doing this at least once (even if we don’t want to admit it).  We’ve never suffered an accident so, you know, we rationalize that it’s ok to do every so often.  In fact, we might even tell ourselves that we are much better drivers and multitaskers than the average person so the risk to us is minimal compared to most.  This is a very slippery slope that leads to normalization.


Now let’s take a look at examples at workplace.  One example we just covered above—texting and driving—this can certainly be a workplace issue.  How about outdoor jobs, such as tree service, construction, roofing, etc.? Roofers are amazing to watch.  We had our roof redone a little over a year ago and watching them go up ladders without using their hands to maintain at least 3 points of contact was scary and amazing to me.  This was a great display of normalization.  These guys go up and down ladders all the time so to them the risk of making a misstep or losing balance was non-existent.  I asked one of the crew members if anyone had gotten by doing so and he said “no” but admitted he had heard of a roofer from another company who suffered multiple fractures as a result of falling by not following ladder safety.


So far I’ve talked about physical injuries but the same normalization can occur in cognitive tasks towards the end of day/end of projects.  You sometimes see this with computer programming and testing.  My husband is an analyst and there are times when “crises” have come up because either the programmer missed something/entered a wrong code or the tester decided to skip one last test since all of the previous tests were fine. 


It is human nature to get lazy…physically and mentally.  We are especially vulnerable when it pertains to something we do over and over or when we are fatigued (fatigued physically or mentally-“just want to be done with the project!”).  Knowing that this the case is the first step in being able to prevent this from happening.  If steps aren’t taken to design the work practices and processes along with the addressing cultural issues that make it ok to be “blind” to the matter, the risk for injury and errors significantly increases.  Think about this:  if all experienced pilots normalized their pre, during and post-check flight list and truly went on “automatic pilot” the flying public could really be in danger and the entire industry sent reeling should deadly accidents occur.  Luckily  No, it’s actually by design!  There are so many checks and balances in the flying process that the risk of this is extremely low. 


When you investigated your incidences, did you look for normalcy bias?  Have you proactively looked at your work processes for the risk level of normalization?  Don’t wait another day for something bad to happen—only to say or hear “Nothings ever happened before.  It should’ve been fine to do…”

Need help with assessing the risk of normalization?  Contact us today for a free consultation.