The complacency autopilot

  • Published
  • By George Maher
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing weapons safety manager
If you're like the majority of us that are afflicted with the "human condition," your brain is trying to re-focus on job-related issues, while closing out another holiday season.

It's the annual "January Challenge," and part of the natural cycle this time of year. The natural cycle goes something like this: "Man, it's back to the grind again and an Operational Readiness Inspection looms on the horizon. My credit card balances are absolutely ridiculous. Man, it's cold out here today."

Does this sound familiar?

What effect are all of these distracters having on your safety awareness? The answer -- more than most of us realize. The distracters, known as post-holiday stress, can lead you directly to complacency. We're all inflicted with it, and we all have the symptoms.

Sometimes it's called autopilot. It's a dangerous condition, especially on the job. How do you recognize it and what can you do about it?

Here's a classic example of being on autopilot: Have you ever driven home after a hard day's work and pulled into the driveway and realized you have no real recollection of the trip home?

What color was the car you followed on the way home? How many children got off that bus that you stopped for? You managed to follow that car without running into it, and you surely obeyed the law and stopped for that bus, but were you really paying attention?

Was your brain somewhere between the office and that stack of bills? Now think about your environment at work.

You're programmed to do things a certain way. You won't walk into that engine safe zone, will you? You won't install that part incorrectly, right? You won't drop that weapon or forget to safe it. Why? Because you're well trained, you follow the directives and you've done it a million times.

But where does complacency fit into that equation? Remember that drive home? A major cause of accidents is complacency. Drivers are often on autopilot.

It's the same scenario with the vast majority of Air Force mishaps, and no one is immune.

If you drive off onto the shoulder, or see someone blow through a stop sign, it generally scares the heck out of you. That feeling is usually followed by an immediate spike in situational awareness.

This should be the same reaction at work. Recognize the signs and identify the indicators of complacency.

Is your coworker taking short cuts? Is the supervisor finding increased discrepancies before signing off on jobs? Are tools missing? Are minor mishaps or close calls occurring?

Just like in the driving scenario, it's time for you to be alarmed, and it's time to raise awareness-- safety awareness.

The word complacent is defined by Webster as, "Contented to a fault, self-satisfied." Add the word "workplace" to the definition and you might say, "Contented to the degree that ignorance of risks and hazards occurs, jeopardizes others."

Stress is a problem on its own. However, it fits neatly into the workplace definition because contentment with your own capabilities and ignorance of risks is a direct product of stress's effect on the psyche.

If we're content with our own ability, we're more apt to lower our situational awareness. Remember that drive home?

Part of the recognition of complacency is to attack it as part of an active safety program. The post-holiday season is prime mishap season, so take preventative steps now.

Brief your Airmen about the dangers of complacency as part of your safety program. Call time out when it's appropriate and pay attention to the warning signs and don't ignore them.

Help ensure that everyone meets the mission while re-grouping from the holiday tasks and traditions. Remember that the pesky human condition is lurking. Leave the autopilot off. Work hard but work safe. Are you up to that challenge?