When Shortcuts Become the Norm
Most workplaces require workers to follow a series of pre-defined steps when performing certain tasks. From time to time, workers may stray from the established procedures and take shortcuts. Unless there are negative consequences, the shortcuts get repeated until they eventually become the “norm.” This situation, known as the “Normalization of Deviance,” is a safety hazard you must stop. Here’s why and how.
The “Normalization of Deviance” Creeps up on You
Initially, the deviation by workers from set standards is incremental, barely noticed, and is therefore easily accepted. In most cases, we only become aware of “Normalization of Deviance” when an incident results.
I believe that well-designed procedures allow for the human element. In other words, you should be able to miss a step in a well-designed procedure and one of the other steps should be the check.
From Shortcut to Accepted Procedure
However, when a step is missed and there’s been no negative consequence to the shortcut, it’s now possible that some workers – and supervisors – actually view missing the step as a positive. Perhaps missing the step allows a worker to save time or maybe the sub-standard procedure requires fewer tools or fewer people. If this is the case, it’s very likely that the same shortcut will be repeated, particularly in a pressure situation.
By repeatedly missing the step, the shortcut gains credibility and the outcome supports the experience. Over time, this leads to a belief that this behavior is now the “norm” or acceptable standard. In most cases, the result is positive.
The Slippery Slope of Shortcuts
However, in the worker’s mind, what was once a four-step procedure has now become a three-step procedure. The margin for human error has now increased, since one of the steps/checks has been removed from the procedure, adding to risk of incident.
Now what happens if this same worker is mentoring or training an apprentice or inexperienced worker? He’s now teaching a three-step instead of a four-step procedure, again increasing the risk of incident.
Let’s take another example: Speeding. Most of us do not consistently go 32 km/hour (20 mph) over the speed limit in one fell swoop. We start by going 8 km/hour (3-5 mph) over the limit, as this seems to be an acceptable speed based on the other drivers around us who have already become “normalized”. For many of us the speed slowly creeps upwards. Eventually the consequences catch up, leading to an incident (collision, speeding ticket); then we revert back to the standard!
When we look at the regulations, standards or procedures, we realize that most were “written in blood” or designed as a result of a loss. Complying with those standards is the best way to avoid “Normalization of Deviance.”
John Wettstein is a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP), Certified Health & Safety Consultant (CHSC) & workplace trainer. John has been published in OHS Canada, & has instructed at the University of Alberta, Faculty of Extension, for the Occupational Health & Safety Certificate Program.