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Dirty Dozen: Counteracting Complacency

Believe it or not, sometimes being “safe” just doesn’t cut it. Just because your workplace has an unblemished safety record doesn’t mean that accidents can’t or won’t happen. Assuming that everything is as safe as it can get is a sign of a complacent view of your job, your responsibilities, and your surroundings.

Complacency is a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger or defect. It is a self-satisfaction or smug satisfaction with an existing situation or condition. According to Tzvetomir Blajev of SKYbrary, overconfidence in a system leads to complacency and lack of adequate vigilance.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) says that complacency or a false sense of security should not be allowed to develop as a result of long periods without an accident or serious incident. An organization with a good safety record is not necessarily a safe organization.

“There is absolutely no room for complacency where safety is concerned. There never was, and there never will be,” says Dr. Assad Kotaite, former president of the Council of the ICAO.

Contributors to complacency
Complacency can show its ugly face in many ways, all of which can lead to a reduced awareness of danger. Overconfidence and self-satisfaction, especially when combined with contentment, will lower a likelihood of suspicion. Simply put, if you assume nothing bad can or will happen, you won’t anticipate danger and you won’t know how to react when it happens.

Someone who is overconfident might take on too many tasks at once. When a simultaneous workload is higher, so is the chance for error. According to Aviation Electronics Technician (Second Class) Lawrence Brown, trying to do too many things at one time can cause confusion in processes. Missed steps can result from knowingly or unknowingly cutting corners.

For example, the report “Influence of Time Pressure on Aircraft Maintenance Errors”by Takahiro Suzuki, Terry L. Von Thaden, and William D. Geibel illustrates cases of complacency: “When an AMT pointed out a problem with an aircraft in ACN 641974, a lead mechanic told an AMT to dispatch an aircraft because ‘it was just making a round trip.’ A complacent attitude was also observed in ACN 635595 in which an AMT had conducted a bird strike inspection without using the printed inspection instructions because the AMT could not print out the maintenance manual.”

High stress, excessive hours, low morale, fatigue, and unreasonable deadlines are also factors that can lead to complacency. Any single one of these factors could cause someone to speed through a process “just to get it done.” Now imagine a combination of those factors.

Quality of workmanship suffers when technicians become complacent — and no aircraft passenger deserves to board a plane that was maintained or repaired poorly. Brown says that poor workmanship can also result in high rework costs and time lost, which causes even overall lower production rates.

“The fatigue from working too many hours could cause an inspector to overlook critical checkpoints,” says Brown. “The outcome of what could happen if the final inspectors don't do their jobs is scary to think about.”

Fighting the good fight
Supervisors need to be aware of potential causes and contributors to complacency and look for warning signs in their staff. Listen to complaints and concerns of the maintainers. Take them aside and speak to them one-on-one to give them a chance to be honest and to lessen the influence of co-workers. Address any problems and look for similarities in other staff members. If fatigue, stress, or low morale are commonplace, it is a sign of a culture issue.

“You always have to fight complacency,” says Jerome Lederer, original organizer of the Flight Safety Foundation and former director of safety for all of NASA. “You need formal programs to ensure that safety is always kept in mind.”

In order to work out the morale issues, Brown recommends offering incentives whenever possible. Set reasonable deadlines to allow for setbacks and pitfalls. These solutions could greatly reduce complacency in the workplace.

Solutions SKYbrary offers to supervisors include:

  • Try to maintain an optimum level of vigilance within your team by continuous observation which will allow you to split or band-box sectors in good time.
  • Restrict unnecessary visitors, particularly in high workload or during training.
  • Control distractions such as watching television or listening to loud music.
  • Make sure that all mechanics receive adequate breaks.
  • Ensure that filtered water is available at all times. Hydration has a profound effect on vigilance. Coffee and tea act as dehydrators although they do have a stimulant effect.

SKYbrary’s solutions for aircraft mechanics include:

  • Be on your guard against complacency to ensure that you are able to detect and act on any error or malfunction promptly.
  • Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by non-essential conversation or by extraneous noise. Speak up if these situations do occur and ask for the sources to be removed.
  • Ensure you have adequate sleep and anticipate reduced vigilance brought on by fatigue.
  • Request a break if needed.
  • Effective teamwork is often the only mitigation for vigilance errors.

This is the sixth in a series of articles on the Dirty Dozen. The Dirty Dozen was developed by Gordon Dupont at Transport Canada. They are critical factors in the area of human factors and safety; they include complacency, lack of knowledge, lack of teamwork, distraction, fatigue, lack of resources, pressure, lack of assertiveness, lack of communication, norms, stress, and lack of awareness.