The Art of Safety – Unnormalizing Deviation
Given the predictable nature of hazards, how and why do incidents occur? Think about this: If I know the winning numbers ahead of a lottery drawing, it’s simple for me to be 100% successful at winning the lottery money. So, if we know how hazards are going to act and how they cause harm, why aren’t we 100% successful at safety? It’s because we don’t fully grasp and utilize the Art of Safety, or how and why you must understand, lead, develop and protect people.
That’s why I wrote the book “Frontline Incident Prevention – The Hurdle: Innovative and Practical Insights on the Art of Safety” and why I am focusing my 2023 Incident Prevention articles – and their corresponding free webinars – on the Art of Safety. In this article and its associated webinar, we’ll discuss normalization of deviation (NOD) and how it can be unnormalized.
Last year, I was super excited when a friend of mine gave me a ladder. My excitement faded when I took it home and read the label. It was rated for 200 pounds, and I weighed 220 pounds, so I couldn’t use it. Off to the storage shed it went. A few months later, it was time to hang Christmas lights, and guess what I needed and had readily available? Now, I knew I shouldn’t use the ladder my friend had given me, but I thought about the safety factor built into ladders. I was only going to have to climb the first three rungs to get to the gutters over the driveway, so I tried it – and it worked. My yard slopes slightly, so as I moved locations, I climbed to the fourth rung and then the fifth. At the very last corner, I couldn’t reach the gutter without climbing to the top of the ladder, but it was only going to take a second, so up I went. I completed my task successfully and without incident.
Unknowingly, this started a process of NOD for this task. NOD is risk tolerance compounded over time or, as Danny Raines would say, accepting what was once unacceptable. I knew the standards associated with this task, and I changed them to meet my needs in large part because I made decisions based on comfort and convenience. The 200-pound rating became 220. “Don’t stand on the top of a ladder” became “Don’t stand on the top of a ladder for more than a few seconds.” “Set ladders up on level and stable ground” became “Slight slopes are OK.”
The more comfortable I became on the ladder, the more I deviated. “Work only in front of the ladder” became “It saves a lot of time to reach as far to the side as possible to avoid having to reposition the ladder.” Counting clothing, shoes, tools and equipment, 220 pounds became anything under 250. In other words, my risk tolerance for this task increased and my perception of the hazard changed. What did not change were the actual risk and hazard. Unchecked and uncorrected, NOD can lead to tragic consequences.
My ladder story has a happy ending in the sense that I never fell and hurt myself. But many cases of NOD do not have such good endings. From space shuttle explosions to fatal falls from ladders to electrocutions, far too many lives have been altered or ended because of NOD. For critical tasks, we must assess risk and identify hazards with situational awareness and adhere to standards and procedures as we work. The good news is we have tools to help.
We have the energy wheel and risk assessment matrices to help us accurately assess risk. Job and task hazard analyses help us identify hazards. Training and evaluation help us understand hazards and risks. Job briefings help us mitigate hazards and risks. Observations provide feedback on the effectiveness of our work planning and execution. Self-checks using STAR (stop, think, act, review) help us avoid decisions based on comfort and convenience. Verification practices help us ensure tasks are performed correctly.
The key is this: None of these tools works if our risk tolerance is too high for the task that we are planning. We must be aware of factors such as pride; past experiences; availability and confirmation biases; peer pressure; task demands; and time constraints that negatively impact our risk tolerance. And we must also identify where we have drifted away from standards and expectations over time. We have to value safety and make protecting ourselves and others our primary goal for every task we perform.
Let’s be real. I don’t expect you to read this article and never drive 2 mph over the speed limit or use a screwdriver as a chisel again. I absolutely expect all of us to take risk tolerance and normalization of deviation to heart by never working around energized power lines without rubber gloves, never texting and driving, never entering unprotected trenches, never standing under suspended loads, never seriously overloading equipment, never driving or working under the influence, and never working from heights without fall protection.
The next time you find yourself using a chair or rotating stool as a ladder, think about what led to that decision and its potential consequences. Are the shortcuts you are taking worth the risk? Let terms like “critical tasks,” “potentially serious injury or fatality” and “stuff that can kill you” resonate. Protect yourself, remembering that hazards and risks are quantifiable and predictable, and that they don’t change or decrease for a given task – our perception of them does. Value safety and unnormalize deviation.
From Words to Action
The words in this article will not save lives, but what you do with them can. Attend the free November 8 webinar and learn how to turn these words into action. We’ll discuss the article, and you’ll have the opportunity to ask questions and add value to the discussion. I hope you’ll attend and look forward to seeing you there. I also encourage you to read “Frontline Incident Prevention – The Hurdle: Innovative and Practical Insights on the Art of Safety” and enroll in The Art of Safety course available at https://ip-institute.com.
About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CIT, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute (https://ip-institute.com) and the author of “Frontline Leadership – The Hurdle” and “Frontline Incident Prevention – The Hurdle.” He has extensive experience and expertise in leadership, human performance, safety and operations. McPeak is passionate about personal and professional development and believes that intrapersonal and interpersonal skills are key to success. He also is an advanced certified practitioner in DISC, emotional intelligence, the Hartman Value Profile, learning styles and motivators.
About Frontline Fundamentals: Frontline Fundamentals topics are derived from the Incident Prevention Institute’s popular Frontline training program (https://frontlineutilityleader.com). Frontline covers critical knowledge, skills and abilities for utility leaders and aligns with the Certified Utility Safety Professional exam blueprint.
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