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Safety Violations Should Never Be Normalized

By James Finta, Director of Safety and Compliance

Safety Hazards in the WorkplaceDoes this picture make you shudder? It should. This is a real photograph, not staged or manipulated in any way. It represents a very dangerous pattern of behavior called normalization of deviance.

Normalization of deviance: As a safety term was first applied by Dr. Diane Vaughan in her analysis of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, and later in analysis of failures in the nuclear energy sector.

It refers to the concept of gradual acceptance of conditions and performance that are individually, incrementally unacceptable, but based on several factors – human nature, workload, inattention, insufficient training or supervision, and others – become accepted, often with catastrophic results. In the case of the Challenger shuttle, NASA allowed the launch to go forward despite significant evidence that the result could be a devastating failure. To add to the tragedy, it happened again in the Columbia disaster; shuttles returning from space with damaged heat shielding had become the norm. If it can happen at NASA, it can happen to anyone.

Can You Spot the Hazards?

In the small 8’x8’ area captured in this photo, there are numerous serious safety issues…

  • unlabeled and mislabeled barrels and buckets
  • open containers of hazardous materials; an un-capped diesel fuel container
  • oily rags stored on top of barrels labeled as flammable
  • oil spills
  • trip hazards
  • slip hazards
  • health hazards
  • environmental hazards
  • and more.

Any one of these problems could perhaps be overlooked by a busy garage crew, but in aggregate, the situation is completely unacceptable. This is a good example of small deviations becoming the norm, building and presenting a hazard to your people and your business.

How much risk is in this small space?

The answer depends on what the eventual accident would be, but consider this: according to Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, the average cost of a slip-and-fall workmen’s comp claim is $22,800 per accident, not including lost time, retraining, etc.. The annual direct cost to businesses in the US for slip-and-fall accidents tops $11 billion dollars. Add EPA or OSHA actions, contracted clean-up services, a more serious injury, extended medical costs and insurance reserves, perhaps a fire, litigation, lost time, lost productivity, lost opportunities, and the costs quickly escalate. Also important to consider: if a visitor or building occupant is injured, liability is even greater. This small area represents risk that can financially cripple a business very quickly.

How to Combat Normalized Deviance

Mitigating the danger that normalized deviance represents begins with recognizing the problem, hopefully before a catastrophic accident.

  1. Leadership – Ask yourself some tough questions: Is safety really our top priority or do we just talk a good game? In this particular example, supervisors saw this situation countless times and did not address it, and worse, accepted the performance that created it. Your safety culture will reflect the actions and attitudes of your leaders.
  2. Empowerment – Identifying problems like this won’t happen from your corporate headquarters. Your safety program must be owned by your line personnel and shop managers, the people who see these situations every day. Near Miss and Hazard Reporting programs are powerful tools in safety and compliance initiatives, encouraging employees to examine their workspace with a fresh eye and remain on the lookout for potential hazards. Empowered, engaged employees are your first and best line of defense.
  3. Constant vigilance– Normalization of deviance occurs over time. Inspections, reviews, training, incentives, early interventions, and other tools will help you get and stay ahead of situations like this one, before they result in a damaging incident.

The Four Options in Handling Risk

With any risk there are four options: accept it, avoid it, limit it, or transfer it. In our industry, no one can accept this kind of risk. Acceptance and inaction is far too dangerous and costly. It is similarly impossible to completely avoid it; if you have vehicles they must be maintained, with all of the hazards that the work entails. The strategies above are broad components of a good safety program that is designed to limit this type of risk. If you already have a safety program in place, reinvigorate your employees’ focus and commitment to it with incentive programs, communication and awareness campaigns.

Finally, you can transfer the risk. At Amerit, we assume and mitigate these risks for our clients every day. Whether working on our client’s property or in our own garage, our team of experts goes far beyond simply maintaining vehicles, we also ensure that all maintenance facilities are managed with a focus on safety, compliance, and attention to detail. With Amerit as your partner, your facility is safer, your risk is lower, and you’re free to focus on your business.

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