The impact of cognitive bias on safety risks is not fully understood in many organisations, which still have a ways to go in better understanding and managing cognitive bias with a view to improving OHS outcomes, according to the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“It is still an emerging topic, particularly in safety,” said Anton Zytnik, senior OHS/WorkCover consultant with the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“Cognitive biases affect the way we make all types of professional decisions, and much of the focus has been on decision bias in areas like behavioural finance, recruitment, project management and so on.”
However, the impact of cognitive biases on safety decision making seems to have attracted attention more recently, said Zytnik.
“From my personal experience, there is a ‘sameness’ to the safety mistakes that employers regularly make that hasn’t changed much over the years.
“So, I think we have a way to go.”
There are a number of issues in this for OHS professionals, according to Zytnik, who said the challenge is twofold for OHS.
“Not only do we have to recognise and tactfully challenge cognitive bias in business leaders, but we also have to recognise our own biases and be prepared to consider information and opinions that may challenge some of our deeply held views,” he said.
“As OHS professionals, we need to be able to think clearly and talk persuasively about risk. “Unfortunately, cognitive biases distort the way we think about the probability and consequences of future events, which is why in so many businesses there is a mismatch between perceived and actual risk.”
Zytnik said it is in every OHS professional’s interest to better understand these biases in others and themselves so they can make better decisions and have safer workplaces.
There are many kinds of cognitive biases, including the “availability heuristic” which is the tendency to rely on information which can easily be recalled when making decisions.
“We have all experienced workplaces that react quickly and decisively to remedy a safety breach once there has been a serious injury, but failed to appreciate the risk one day before,” said Zytnik.
“The immediacy and vividness of an example increases risk perception, whereas the absence of an example leads to complacency.
“Safe workplaces understand their level of risk at all times; unsafe workplaces assume they are safe because nothing bad has happened yet.”
There are a number of steps OHS professionals can take in the process – the simplest of which is to raise awareness about cognitive bias and its implications for safety management.
“Just talking openly about biases and appreciating that they may impact your decisions with have positive effects in all areas of a business, not just in safety,” said Zytnik.
“Another step is to design your safety processes in a way that limits the influence of cognitive bias.
“For example, actor-observer bias inclines us to blame an employee’s personality for behaviour that led to an incident (‘John is lazy and wasn’t paying attention’) and underestimate the importance of the situation (‘The lighting was insufficient and there were trip hazards everywhere’).”
Zytnik also said that well-designed incident investigation processes and documents will oblige the investigation team to consider systemic factors, and not simply conclude that “John” needs to pay more attention next time.
Article originally published by the Australian Institute of Health and Safety.
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