danger of death sign, with man in yellow triangle being electrocuted; cognitive biases represent a danger to safety

The Dangers of Cognitive Biases in Organizational Safety

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation in judgement in which individuals create their own subjective reality that don’t always align with reality. This leads to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, and illogical interpretation of events (Haselton et. al., 2005). In a nutshell, cognitive biases hinder clear thinking and promote risk-taking behavior.

Examples may include not tying off at certain heights, entering a confined space area without proper PPE, and grinding without a face shield. The question is why do people ever take these risks? Understanding cognitive biases helps individuals be more mindful of their actions and avoid safety shortcuts.

Common Cognitive Biases

Common cognitive biases include the fundamental attribution error, confirmation bias, conservation bias, and the anchoring effect (Baron, 2000). Regarding the fundamental attribution error, people blame environmental factors (e.g., time pressure) for their own failures, but attribute similar failures in others to personal attributes (e.g., bad workers). As a result of this common error, employees are apt to blame the situation for their injuries and overlook their own person-states. This may make them more resistant to learning from mistakes and close calls. Conversely, incident analysis teams are prone to blame the individual without fully considering system factors contributing to the incident.

Also, employees may get hurt because they’re resistant to change, including adherence to new rules, tools, and equipment.

These beliefs are reinforced by the anchoring effect (i.e., over-reliance on past information) in which employees believe the original information they learned years ago doesn’t need updating. Also, the confirmation bias (i.e., aligning new information with preconceived beliefs) and the conservation bias (i.e., being unmoved by new evidence) can cause employees to resist new safety efforts. If you’ve ever heard, “we’ve being doing it this way for years” you are witnessing these cognitive biases. The potential for human error increases when employees aren’t open to new information.

People also tend to underestimate everyday hazards because they aren’t as memorable as dramatic ones.

As an example, more people may have a fear of flying versus driving even though the odds are infinitely higher being killed in an automotive versus vehicle crash. In fact, the odds of dying in a plane crash on a major U.S. airline are 1 in 13.6 million (Kebabjian, 2009).

Overcoming Cognitive Biases

Overcome these cognitive biases by sharing injury testimonials from employees, bringing in public speakers who’ve had serious industrial incidents, and explaining safety compliance from the perspective of injury avoidance instead of punishment. This includes thorough discussions of hazard potential and mitigation strategies in pre-job briefs. Also, human performance peer checks also encourage employees to give each other helpful feedback to prevent incidents. Post-job briefs can also be used to determine what went well and what could have gone wrong after the shift has been completed.

Use these strategies to guard against cognitive biases that can cause serious injuries and fatalities.

At Propulo, we coach leaders to focus on prosocial safety behaviors and avoid pitfalls that derail safety efforts. We can help your leaders stay on track and make step change improvements in your safety performance. For more information on this topic, read about Safety & Safety Culture and Operational Performance at Propulo Consulting.


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