The complacency autopilot

  • Published
  • By George Maher
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Safety Office
We're all exhaling now that the holidays are over and if you're like the majority of us that are inflicted with the "human condition," your brain is trying to re-focus on job-related activities and routine family stressors.

It's all part of the natural cycle at this time of year. An example of common thought processes at this time of year goes something like this:

"I've got to get these Christmas bills paid ... Can I get this part replaced in time to make the next line? ... My credit card balances are ridiculous right now ... These reports need to be finished by 3 p.m. ... Man, it's cold out here today ... I've got to get those Christmas lights back in the attic before she kills me." 

Sound familiar? What affects are all of these distracters having on your safety awareness? More than most of us want to admit.

It's known as stress and it leads to complacency. We're all inflicted with it; we all have the symptoms. Sometimes it's called "autopilot" and it's a dangerous condition, especially on the job. It's always around but it's as seasonal as Christmas itself. How do you recognize complacency and eliminate it?

Have you ever driven home after a hard day's work and pulled into the driveway and realized that you have no real recollection of the trip home? What color was the car you followed most of the way home? How many children got off that bus that you stopped for? You managed to follow that car without hitting it and you surely obeyed the law and stopped for that bus. But, were you really paying attention? 

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 secure it. Why? Because you're well trained, you follow the directives, and you've done it a million times. 

Now, where does complacency fit into that equation? Remember that drive home? Were you just lucky? We witness or read about automobile accidents or pedestrians being hit all the time. A major cause of these accidents is complacency or operating out of focus. Drivers are often on autopilot.

It's the same scenario with the vast majority of Air Force mishaps. The maintainer, the operator, that enlisted gal, or that officer guy; nobody is immune. Somebody failed to recognize when the autopilot switch went hot in a large percentage of Air Force mishaps. And guess what?  Complacency tends to bring "Murphy" along for the ride.

While on the road, if you suddenly drive off onto the shoulder or see someone blow through a stop sign, it scares the heck out of you. That feeling is generally followed by an immediate spike in situational awareness. This should be the same reaction at work. Recognize the signs.

Identify the indicators. Are the directives closed or left back in the technical orders library? Is your coworker taking short cuts or rushing through proper procedure? Is the 7-level 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. Your job is to recognize and identify it. If it's your own complacency at hand, correct it. Take yourself out of the game for a couple of plays. Refocus and take care of the distracter. Put things in their proper perspective or talk with someone if it's too big for your capabilities. You won't be able to take care of anything if you're laid up from an on-the-job injury.

What about your coworkers? Are they paying attention?  Is it evident their minds are elsewhere? Make them aware of their impact on safety. Let supervisors know. Wouldn't you let your coworker know that blowing through that stop sign was unacceptable? Of course you would. Why would the job site be treated any differently?

The word "complacent" is defined as "Contented to a fault; self-satisfied." Add the word "workplace" to the definition and you might say, "Contented to a degree that increases ignorance of risks and hazard; jeopardizes self and others". Now add stress. Stress is a contributing factor in complacency. It fits neatly into the workplace complacency equation because contentment with your own capabilities and ignorance of risks is a direct product of stress's effect on the psyche. If you're passively content with our own abilities while you're concentrating on stressors, you're more apt to lower your situational awareness. Results: A higher risk of a mishap.

Again, remember that drive home?

Returning from the holiday season is the right time to refocus. Remember, there is that pesky human condition called complacency lurking. As supervisors, we're entrusted with our Airmen's environment. That environment includes the situational awareness posture within the workplace. 

As coworkers and friends, it's our obligation to "check our six" when it comes to our own attitudes and to promote the wingman philosophy with regard to complacency within the shop.  Look out for one another on the job as well as while off duty. During our return from another annual festive season, there's a lot on our minds and perhaps some added stress. Leave the autopilot in the "off" position. Get yourself and your teammates refocused now. Are you doing your part?