3 min read: The first time I ride a new horse, or perhaps after a long break or maybe immediately after a near miss, I am very aware of the risks of horse riding, in fact my brain is screaming at me to get off and do something less scary. Yet within minutes, hours and certainly a few days of repeated exposure I’m back to feeling super relaxed and not paying that much attention despite the fact that riding a horse is 20 times more dangerous than riding a motorbike.
When we are exposed to aversive stimuli and nothing bad happens, over time the brain learns not to pay attention or to respond. It’s a survival mechanism known as habituation (what many might describe as complacency), an adaptive process that enables us to avoid wasting effort. It’s the reason why someone like myself, despite being a complete wimp, can do something as dangerous as ride a horse.
Many safety interventions are based on shock tactics to try and sensitise workers to risk. If we have an emotional reaction to any aversive event, of course we’ll be much more sensitised to risks and more situationally aware in the short term, but just like riding the horse, within minutes, hours and certainly days and weeks, with repeated exposure and if nothing bad happens, over time the brain learns not to pay attention or respond. When it comes to managing safety we cannot use the threat of what might happen to reliably motivate behaviour, since most times, nothing bad materialises and therefore there are no natural day to day consequences to support this behaviour.
Behaviour aligns with the day to day consequences in the work environment. We must design a work environment that prompts and reinforces working in a way that reduces risk day in day out. If the day to day work environment supports working at reduced risk, then that’s what we’ll get. If the day to day work environment supports working at increased risk, then that’s what we’ll get. Designing a work environment that prompts and reinforces working in a way that reduces risk is of course more effortful in the short term and it requires that supervisors, managers and leaders have a good understanding of their downstream impact in terms of both the physical and social environment that they create or maintain. But it's the only way to influence behaviour in a sustainable way.