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Omission Bias Also Applies to Safety


By Randy Logsdon

Scenario I:
The welder is preparing to grind the weld on a joint he has just made. He reaches for the face shield and discovers that the once clear plastic has become so pitted and abraded that it has a milky character. He recognizes that the defect makes the face shield more of a hazard than a benefit and since it’s such a small job, he proceeds to grind the joint using safety glasses with side shields as his only eye protection. As he begins to grind, the foreman walks by and observes the job and notes that lack of proper protection – but says nothing. He too recognizes that this is just a brief job – no big deal. As he walks away, he hears a scream. He turns and finds the welder with the grinder thrown to the ground holding his right eye.

Scenario II:
The welder is preparing to grind the weld on a joint he has just made. He reaches for the face shield and discovers that the once clear plastic has become so pitted and abraded that it has a milky character. He looks around and sees his foreman across the shop and gets his attention. The foreman walks over and the welder describes how the condition of the face shield makes the job hazardous. The foreman recognizes that this is just a brief job – no big deal but wants to put the welder at ease. He suggests that the welder grind down the joint while he searches for a new face shield. As he walks away, he hears a scream. He turns and finds the welder with the grinder thrown to the ground holding his right eye.

I’ve just finished reading a book entitled Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won. Early in the book, the authors (L. Jon Wertheim and Tobias J. Moskowitz) discuss something called omission bias in the context of professional sports officials’ calls. The premise is that it is a much greater sin for an official to make an errant call than to make an errant no-call.

An official may be the object for some criticism for not calling pass interference (especially if the receiver makes the catch) but he will be in for much more criticism for making an interference call in error that may change the outcome of the game.

“It conforms to a sort of default mode of human behavior. People view acts of omission – the absence of an act – as far less intrusive or harmful that acts of commission  – the committing of an act – even if the outcomes are the same or worse.”

Is there not similar bias in the way we recognize action vs. inaction in workplace safety?

Consider the Scenarios
Both of the scenarios represented above involve the same setting, the same personnel and the same results. The difference in the two is that the first scenario was an errant no-call (an act of omission); the second an errant call (an act of commission). Which is more egregious? Both involved judgment errors. Both resulted in the same injury. Don’t we tend to give the no-call a break while we consider the errant call more intentional? Should we?

You may be thinking of other workplace safety applications: The vehicle left unchecked; the equipment left with the guard removed; the truck with the defective back-up alarm; the damaged step; and the open electrical box. These are all conditions that require at least one more action to produce an injury. That other action will likely be the focus of the accident investigation. The inaction of prompt correction or warning that established the condition may or may not play a role in the investigation. It will be much more difficult to track.

The point is that action or inaction can both be game-changers. As operators, we must recognize that role and understand that accountability for the no-call may carry the same impact as the errant call. In doing so, we each might be just that more inclined to make the call rather than walk by. E

Moskowitz, Tobias J., and Jon L. Wertheim. Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won. New York: Crown Archtype, 2011

Randy K. Logsdon, CMSP, is manager of safety for Intrepid Potash New Mexico operations. He has practiced safety on both the coal and metal/non-metal side of mining for more than 30 years. Randy is a Certified Mine Safety Professional. ­­­He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..