It’s 5am on Saturday morning. You’re enjoying some well-earned sleep after a busy but rewarding week at work. Suddenly, the peace is shattered by a searing alarm. Immediately as the first blast of sound strikes your ear drum, your brain has already used its pre-programmed shortcuts to determine that this is just your neighbour’s car alarm, not the fire alarm or carbon monoxide monitor at your home. So, instead of waking up alert and ready to evacuate, you notice yourself already pulling up your duvet to cover your ears and drifting back off to sleep.

You like your neighbours – and you know that they would be very upset if something happened to their car – you know that they need it to get to work on Monday, to take their children to school and to check in on elderly parents. Yet, you ignore the noise, shrug it off as just another false alarm and think nothing more of it as you dig deeper under the covers and sail to the land of nod. Why do you do that?

Well, our brains use ‘convenience shortcuts’ – or to give them their proper name: ‘heuristics’ – to make incredibly rapid decisions about whether we are in danger and how we should react, long before we have time to consciously analyse each stimuli, integrate that data and come to a rationalised conclusion. Just like the famous Bob Marley song “Three Little Birds” suggests, our brains try to help us stay on the right track and by encouraging and telling us: “…don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cos every little thing, is gonna be alright.”

Critically, these heuristics are developed and are constantly refined based on our actual lived experiences of events, stories we’ve heard over time, and our perceptions of how the world works. And yes, even the songs we have in our head at any given time can influence our thoughts and actions.

“our brains use heuristics to make incredibly rapid decisions about whether we are in danger and how we should react”

Heuristics are even dynamic to the locations we are in – such as the home, the office or the factory floor. Heuristics are helpful in allowing us to make rapid (often favourable) decisions, especially when we are missing key information. We can’t know for sure why the car alarm is going off, but we take the decision that it is more likely to be a false alarm than a thief and that staying in bed is favourable versus getting up from our cosy bed at 5am to go and investigate.

Isn’t it fascinating that none of this decision-making process required any conscious thought or choices to be made by us?

Whilst our brains have evolved to frequently utilise heuristics because they generally lead to positive outcomes for us, we must consider that they can only be as proficient and effective as the experiences and training we have used that refines them. You can think of heuristics as the organic equivalent of machine learning: the more exposure we get to a situation the more accurate and deeply embedded our heuristics become.

Too loud to hear it

We all ignore alarms and warning signals with amazing regularity as our heuristics tell us everything will be alright. And the vast majority of the time, we get away with it. Yet, it only takes one of these instances to be a genuine emergency for a tragedy to occur. Fortunately, alongside these alarms we generally get some additional information that greatly increases our ability to make good decisions. In our car alarm scenario, if the sound of breaking glass accompanied the alarm our reaction would be to reach for our mobile phone rather than the duvet. Similarly, the smell of burnt toast in the morning lets us know that we can be relatively relaxed in responding to our smoke alarm.

But in the world of workplace collective gas detection systems, these additional signals are not so easy to pick up on as the burnt toast or waffle!

One of the biggest challenges in implementing effective gas monitoring is the issue of collective gas detection. The use of high pressure or toxic gasses has become ubiquitous in modern industry, from the obvious sectors like oil and gas, to uses in pharmaceutical and electronics manufacturing. Importantly, these gasses are often colourless, odourless and often don’t elicit a biological reaction until it is already too late.

Canaries in coalmines

The concept of collective gas monitoring and alarm systems is hardly new. Back in the early 1900s, Scottish physiologist John Scott Haldane was busy conducting experiments on himself and his family with various gases to determine at which concentration they become harmful. After several near misses Haldane realised he needed to find a safer way and stumbled across the notion of ‘sentinel species’. Sentinel species are living organisms that are more susceptible or sensitive to a certain hazard than humans. Plants, cats, bees, fish and even alligators have all been used to warn humans of impending dangers in the environment, but perhaps the best known is the canary. John Scott Haldane discovered that canaries, with their fast breathing rate, small size and high metabolism – all compared to humans – led the birds to succumb to toxic gases before those working in underground mines, thereby giving the miner time to take action and evacuate.

There’s a reason that the use of sentinel species – especially canaries in the mines – became popular and well-adopted, beyond the clear efficacy, low cost and ease of implementation. Major factors for popularity include that this was a system that the worker had ownership of, it was a simple solution to operate, and the value of using canaries in the mine was clearly obvious. Miners ultimately used this system not because they were legally forced to, but because they genuinely wanted themselves and every single one of their colleagues to be able to go home at the end of each day unharmed.

“it’s vitally important for us to understand that the critical factors in compliance with collective gas monitoring alarms are trust and belief”

Hey, buddy!

The miners had adopted a buddy/ buddy system of caring for each other, every worker understood this principle which can often be observed today amongst those working in challenging and inhospitable environments, as the value to the individual in preserving the team around them becomes symbiotic. A team that cares about their own safety is more likely to also keep each other safe as well.

In the modern era, collective gas detection systems remain relatively low cost and easy to implement and use, but we have lost that element of personal investment from the workers themselves. They have become one more thing to comply with, rather than a source of team spirit and professional pride.

The great advantage of collective gas monitoring is that these systems are worker independent, they don’t require the worker to actively wear and observe a personal device. Whilst the advantages of this approach are clear, these can also mean that workers feel disconnected from these systems and less likely to engage with and feel emotionally invested in them. Furthermore, when workers wear a personal monitoring device, they are immediately aware that if it is triggered, they are definitely in the affected area. With collective monitoring, a worker could believe that their particular workspace is not currently in danger.

This is particularly a problem in incidents involving nitrogen inhalation, which doesn’t trigger the feeling of asphyxiation since CO2 levels in the blood are not affected. Therefore, it’s vitally important for us to understand that the critical factors in compliance with collective gas monitoring alarms are trust and belief.

The power of trust

Trust is perhaps the ultimate marker of high-quality leadership, cultural maturity and performance excellence. There is surely no better example of this philosophy and its applicability to safety as the achievements of NASA. When an astronaut is preparing for launch, they must implicitly trust that every component and system they rely on has been constructed correctly and that the data given to them by these systems can be relied on to inform their decisions.

Similarly, workers in industries that require collective gas monitoring systems have to entrust their lives to these systems and the engineers who maintain them, every single minute of every single day that they are on the job. Machines, black boxes, cables and sensors do not inspire trust and belief; it is leaders that catalyse a culture of trust and belief in the organisation and its safety framework, building a culture of care and emotional investment in the process, rather than the outcome.

To use a sporting analogy, great managers may adapt their strategy on a game by game basis, but their philosophy is enduring. Whilst ‘possession football’ – a style favoured by Pep Gaurdiola at Barcelona and Manchester City – may be difficult to establish, it is now a statistically proven model for sustained long-term success, despite an initial period of lower productivity and higher set-up cost.

Trust versus compliance

Compliance – to take action following an alarm from a collective gas monitoring alarm – cannot be sustainably achieved using merely the fear factor of potential consequences. Engagement requires a high level of organisational trust, and that requires talented leaders. When a culture of care rather than a culture of compliance is established, the need for supervisor intervention decreases as workers begin to take pride in the system and effectively police themselves and their colleagues.

Clearly, implementing collective gas monitoring as a ‘set and forget’ tool, without also investing in the senior leadership team leaves a high likelihood of workers committing slips, lapses and violations. Remember that effective safeguarding with collective gas monitoring not only requires worker engagement and compliance with the alarms, but also the discipline and principle of staff to test, maintain and report irregularities with these systems. Trust and belief must always be reciprocal, whilst workers must trust management and the monitoring systems in order to comply, there must also be trust and belief from the management and maintenance engineers that the hard work and investments in these systems and training will be adopted and complied with by their workforce.

Reflections on our brains

Let’s take a step back to our neighbour’s car alarm and our household smoke detector scenarios. These are aspects of modern life that have caused us to develop heuristics and a schema of how we should respond. These heuristics get embedded in our brains and relied upon because of the positive feedback loops they provide. In the case of compliance with collective gas monitoring, it is a challenge to assert the positive things that might happen through compliance versus the potential negatives of non-compliance.

Our brains are wired to feel like small and immediate losses are much more painful than the pleasure of small gains. Imagine how excited you would be to find a $50 bill in the street and how long would this excitement stay with you? Now imagine yourself dropping a $20 bill and it being taken away in a gust of wind, the pain of that loss will be felt much deeper and we imagine you would still be telling friends about it long after the event.

This principle also applies to compliance with collective gas monitoring. When workers pause work to evacuate an area, they know they will definitely see a decrease in productivity, which is why the attitude of management to the pause in work is critical to how workers learn to interpret these alarms. Fundamentally, creating a culture of positivity towards the systems that keep us safe at work guides compliance and reinforces a heuristic that favours the genuine goals of the company rather than the perceived goals of the worker.

“in our quest towards safety excellence, we must move towards becoming more human-focussed”

Powerful stories

Consider the kind of ‘stories’ that are told in such circumstances. For example, instead of saying “Okay, the area is now safe, let’s get back to work we have a lot to catch up on” which focuses on the negative outcomes of compliance, leaders could instead say to workers “Thank you for respecting the alarm and evacuating properly, we will thoroughly investigate the cause of this and let you know exactly why this happened and identify any improvements that we might need to make.” Creating more positive ‘stories’ like this throughout the organisation will propel us towards more rapid and sustainable leaps towards safety culture and performance excellence.

Many managers often believe that some worker behaviours are purely subconscious and that no amount of warnings, signage or penalties can truly change those thought processes. Great leaders recognise that whilst changing these deeply embedded behaviours is challenging, it is absolutely possible when taking a committed longer term and all encompassing view of safety culture.

Certainly, these behaviour changes may not be easy, but they certainly provide a much higher return on investment, and once established and will continue to self-perpetuate – much like the spirit of trust and collective interdependence amongst those miners in the coalmines.

In our quest towards safety excellence, we must move beyond the easy wins of system-obsessed solutions for compliance and be willing to grow and challenge ourselves towards becoming more human-focussed.