workplace fall

Why do so many experienced workers underestimate risk?

Posted on 27th Aug, 2021 | By Lorretta Tatham

Older workers still make up a significant proportion of the number of employees involved in accidents at work every year here in the UK, and at first, that may seem slightly counter-intuitive. After all, older workers tend to have much more experience under their belts, common sense dictates that it should be younger workers who are more at risk of accidents, given their comparative lack of training and knowledge.

Time and time again though, employers have found that even their most highly experienced employees aren’t immune to accidents at work. Despite attending all their training courses and with all their years on the job, some can still fall victim to relatively simple mistakes. So why the paradox?

The impact of irrational behaviour

The short version is that experience breeds confidence, and for some workers – not all – confidence can give way to complacency. They may become less vigilant or fail to take basic steps against common hazards, even though they know the risks involved. It’s a very clear example of our human tendency towards irrational behaviour.

Now, we won’t delve too deeply into the developing field of behavioural economics, but it is worth mentioning here. Basically, it’s a field dedicated to exploring the undeniable fact that almost all human decision-making is influenced by biases that cause us to behave irrationally, however much we like to think it’s not.

In other words, we base our conclusions just as strongly on irrational factors as we do on rational ones. If objective facts might tell us that a certain action is dangerous or ill-advised, then in theory, that should be enough for us not to go ahead and do it. In reality though, we’ll take those facts into consideration but ultimately we’ll defer to our own perspective on the issue. We might know X, but we’ll feel Y, and it turns out that Y is almost always the most influential factor in our final decisions.

Our inherently irrational nature is a big part of why humans as a species are often prone to underestimating risks. That’s why people smoke, drink or take drugs, despite the proven damage that these substances can do. If they’ve yet to personally have a negative experience (or sometimes, even if they have), they’ll continue to take these risks in the firm knowledge that they won’t be affected like other people.

How this affects the world of workplace safety

The inherent irrationality extends to every part of our personal and professional lives, and that’s where it can start becoming relevant in the world of workplace safety.

senior workman

Just as with harmful substances, everyone might know the rules and procedures, the risks and the annual stats, but any complacency often stems from each employee’s personal experience of them. If a particular regulation has never been relevant to them in all the years they’ve worked there, they’re more likely to disregard it. They’ll take risks in the belief that it won’t affect them – which can unfortunately lead them to suddenly find out exactly why certain rules are there in the first place.

And of course there’s that eternal balancing act to maintain: the safer we feel, the more at risk we are. The longer that an employee goes without consequences for disregarding a certain set of rules or proper procedures, the safer and more invulnerable they may feel. The risks may be still there, but the employee feels they’re the one in control.

That makes a particularly potent breeding ground for complacency, especially with more-or-less routine tasks. If they’re something that need to be done almost every day, it can be easy for workers to slip into autopilot, and engage in the task without full concentrating on it. That leads to reduced vigilance and mindfulness, which can have particularly severe consequences with tools like abrasive wheels.

While it may be less common than garden variety complacency, there’s also the possibility that certain employees can take their own secret shortcuts on a task, skipping over vital steps – like putting on PPE – that could make all the difference to life and limb.

All that goes some way to explaining why even though they have the training, they know the procedures, and know the risks – accidents can happen regardless.

How you can reduce the risk

Happily, these are the sorts of risks that you can reduce with regular training, no matter how experienced the employee in question is. They’re the most effective measure against that all too prevalent feeling among employees of: no way this would happen to me.

We offer a wide range of training courses here at Browns Safety, covering a variety of key topics like abrasive wheels, working at height, and first aid refresher courses. Since the emergence of the Covid 19 pandemic, we now also offer a comprehensive range of online safety courses. We are currently taking bookings for these courses, so if you’d like to reserve your places, don’t hesitate to get in touch. You can click through to the main course pages listed above, or alternatively contact us directly by calling us on 01282 615517, or emailing us on

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