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Complex work environments heighten safety risks

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NEW ORLEANS — Complexities in the modern workplace, and not necessarily a single person or event, are often the causes of workplace accidents, according to an expert who has studied the roots of mishaps and injuries.

“(That) human error is the cause of accidents, I will try to debunk that,” Ron Ragain, executive director and partner for Conroe, Texas-based The RAD Group L.L.C., told attendees at the National Safety Council Southern Safety Conference & Expo in New Orleans on Thursday.

Mr. Ragain, who has a doctorate degree in psychology and whose company helps employers understand better practices that can lead to a safer work environment, said the “linear” approach to understanding the causation of industrial accidents is flawed in that it’s too simplistic, given all the connecting forces in today’s modern workplace.

“Our workplaces have become a lot more complex over the last century,” he said, displaying a slide of icons — representing people, computers, data and machines — that describe the interconnectivity and complexity of the modern workplace. “Today we have all kinds of interactions with people, machines, procedures that create the workplace we deal with.”

“These are (all) happening at the same time; it’s not linear,” he said, adding that best approach to safety is to focus on the people and the psychology behind groups.

“We have been living in a world where we are comfortable with the linear view… we want to think, this causing this, caused this,” Mr. Ragain said, adding that there are multiple factors involved in workplace accidents.

A safety culture can be breached when “human factors” misalign a company’s objective. He pointed to several issues needed to maintain a safe work environment including awareness, risk aversion, intervention, and adaptation — all the issues that tend to be breached when an accident occurs.

Mr. Ragain’s presentation focused on intervention and what’s at play when such practices fail to prevent incidents. One psychological phenomenon at play when many witness unsafe procedures is the bystander effect, which is the understanding that the more people there are witnessing an event, the less likely they are to speak up, he said.

“In the work environment everybody assumes somebody else will say something” regarding unsafe workplace concerns, he said. “Everybody will say, ‘oh he has more seniority, he’ll say something.”

Other issues he called “inhibiting forces” in creating a safe work environment are “production pressure” and “unit bias.” Production pressures are when the workplace is expected to perform no matter what and unit bias is when an individual or team “are strongly inclined to finish a unit or task without interruption.”

“We are working on something we don’t pay attention and we don’t stop to intervene, to observe” – a practice that can lead to accidents, he said.

“You can overcome these if you train people; train the teams on it,” he said. “If we continue with the simplistic linear approach we are going to miss out. Moving in that direction of zero incidents is learning how to create an environment that deals with complexity. When we teach people to understand (why they don’t intervene) it’s one component.”