Normalization of deviance: ever heard of it? The term refers to the change that takes place, over a period of time, when people gradually stray from established standards without negative consequence until that lower standard becomes the norm.
The deviation is incremental, hardly noticeable. As such, these small changes, again over time, are easily accepted. In most cases, the changes that have taken place because of normalization of deviance only become apparent when an actual incident occurs.
To better understand how incremental change can court real harm, consider a lockout/tagout procedure for more than 750 volts of electrical energy. General lockout/tagout steps are as follows:
- isolate the electrical energy;
- tag (and lock if possible);
- test for potential; and,
- apply worker’s protective grounding.
Well-designed procedures allow for the “human element,” meaning that in the event that one step is missed, another step should serve as a check to ensure the procedure does not fail. In theory, if one of the four lockout/tagout steps is missed, another will act as a check and there should be no consequence.
Getting away with skipping a step may initially appear positive. For example, some time may have been saved, fewer tools may have been required to complete the task, and fewer people may have been needed to perform the job.
Nothing unacceptable having happened, it may be that procedures are carried out this way again, intentionally. This may particularly be the case under pressure or time constraints.
By repeating the approach, however, it gains credibility and the outcome supports the experience, which, over time, fosters a belief that this is now the “norm” and, as such, an acceptable standard.
By making an established four-step procedure a three-step process, the tolerance for human error has been decreased since one of the steps — a check — has been eliminated.
This may have significant reach beyond the individual for which the three-step procedure worked without harm resulting. What if that supervisor or employee, in turn, is mentoring or training an apprentice or less-experienced worker, teaching the three-step procedure as the normal and acceptable way to do things?
The slow change to a lower standard can also be seen in something like driving. Most people do not immediately begin driving far above the speed limit; the speed slowly creeps upward. The excess speed may be only five or 10 kilometres over the limit early on, but will eventually come in line with other drivers who have already become “normalized.”
Eventually, the consequences (in the form of a collision, near miss or speeding ticket) catch up. That usually prompts the driver to revert back to the standard.
Want to avoid potentially harmful normalization of deviance? Follow all steps of established standards.
John is a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP) and a Certified Health and Safety Consultant (CHSC), workplace trainer, author, and owner of Wettstein Safety Strategies Inc.
With fifteen years experience as a tradesman and over thirty years as a health and safety professional, John’s fun, active training workshops are reinforced with humour and enthusiasm, inspiring employees to manage Risk (Safety) through conversations.
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