A great Toll piece of Corporate Safety Leadership. Read the full Road Transport Safety and Compliance Newsletter – November 2019 here


Before you read this column I’d like you to answer two questions. Firstly, do you think you are a better-than-average driver? Secondly, do you think you are more safety conscious at work than your peers?

The reason why I pose these questions will become clear but before we get to that let’s reflect on two recent incidents that occurred at Toll. In one incident, two workers were transporting a photocopier down a flight of stairs without a mechanised stair climber and without fixing the photocopier to the manual trolley. The 240kg photocopier fell off the trolley, rolled down the stairs and smashed a window. In another incident, a forklift driver elevated a truck driver on the forklift tyne to retrieve freight from the mezzanine level of the truck. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in either incident.

It’s easy to shake one’s head and dismiss these behaviours as foolish, but if we’re honest with ourselves, who among us has never been tempted by the “easier” or “faster” shortcut? I know I have. Every day when I leave my office here at Perth airport I have a little battle with myself. I depart with my handbag, computer bag and food bag. Being right handed, I naturally load these bags onto my left shoulder. When I come to the stairs, I have to stop and transfer these bags to my right shoulder in order to grasp the hand rail on my left. In this way I can safely manoeuvre down the stairs.

Each time I have to move thesebags there is a voice in my head that harrumphs at the hassle. What difference will it make, says that voice, it’s not like I’m going to fall and hurt myself. Just go already.

That voice is what psychologists refer to as “optimism bias”, and it’s a useful tool for understanding human behaviour.

Optimism bias is the belief that the chances of something bad happening to us relative to other people is low.

With optimism bias, we recognise the hazard, but we believe the chance of that hazard materialising is higher for other people than for ourselves. Inherent in this thinking is the belief that we are naturally more skilful, more careful, and cleverer than others. Studies show that people tend to falsely believe they are less likely to be in a car accident, be injured on a construction site, die of smoking or be a victim of crime than other people.

Optimism bias is useful in an evolutionary sense. When there are lots of nasties lurking outside of your cave that can trample, eat and maim you, a belief that this is less likely to happen to you than someone else fends off paralysis and fear. It allows you to leave your cave and and food. But optimism bias is dangerous in a modern workplace context. When we believe “it won’t happen to me” we give ourselves permission to ignore our training, bypass the procedure and take shortcuts. And that is how people get hurt.

So every day when I reach the top of the stairs, stop, transfer my bags and hold the rail on my way down like I’m supposed to I recognise and conquer my optimism bias.

Let’s return to the two questions I posed at the start. If Toll conforms to the research, then 80% of us will have answered “yes” to at least one of those questions. But statistically it isn’t possible for 80% of us to be better than average (the average, by de definition, being 50%).

The next time you give a toolbox talk or engage in a safety conversation, it may be useful to pose some questions about how likely workers think it is that something bad will happen to them at work. Their answer can be a useful entre into a discussion about optimism bias and how it can impact our decisions.

If you’re interested in how psychological concepts like optimism bias work, the UK Department of Transport has a highly readable paper on how cognitive biases influence our decision making.

Please take extra care on the roads this festive season. My team and I look forward to seeing you safe and well in 2020.

Sarah Jones, General Manager Road Transport Safety and Compliance Unit (RTSCU), HSE