Unconscious Bias in Safety Decisions: The Hidden Factor in Accidents

This blog post explores the impact of unconscious bias on workplace safety, identifies five forms of bias, and provides strategies to mitigate them, while introducing Scratchie as a tool to promote a bias-free safety culture.
June 19, 2023
Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.
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On January 28, 1986, the world watched in horror as the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after launch, claiming the lives of all seven crew members on board. This devastating tragedy was not merely the result of a mechanical failure, but a consequence of a hidden factor that plagues even the most advanced organisations.

Blinded by the psychological phenomenon known as groupthink, the team of NASA executives responsible were united in their desire to proceed with the mission. This led them to disregard concerns raised by their engineers about the dangerously low temperatures on the day of the launch.

Today, the Challenger incident still serves as a glaring illustration of what happens when unconscious bias goes unchecked in safety-critical organisations, and why taking measures to prevent it is so important.

Unpacking Unconscious Bias

Unconscious biases are psychological blindspots that impact our judgement and decision-making. There are many forms of unconscious bias that can pose a threat to safety in the workplace, with groupthink being just one.

Stemming from personal experiences, social conditioning, or cultural influences, unconscious biases can result in the overlooking of potential hazards, the underestimation of risks, or the neglect of safety protocols. This makes them especially important to recognise and address in safety-critical contexts like the construction industry.

In this post, we’ll explore five forms of unconscious bias that present threats to safety in construction, and offer a range of individual-, managerial-, and cultural-level strategies to help mitigate them.

Five Forms of Unconscious Bias on Worksites

In safety-critical workplaces, unconscious bias can impact how construction managers, supervisors, and workers perceive and address safety issues in a variety of ways.

For example, a manager may downplay the severity of a safety hazard, leaving it unaddressed. Or a worker might make false assumptions about the capabilities of a colleague, leading to potential oversights or misjudgments.

As these blindspots stack up, the overall safety culture on a worksite may grow compromised. This means that understanding and addressing the different forms of unconscious bias is essential for fostering a proactive and unbiased approach to workplace safety.

To help, let’s explore five of the most common forms of unconscious bias that can arise in a typical construction context.

1. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek, interpret, or remember information in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs or assumptions. This bias can lead to a disregard for alternative perspectives and potential risks, which may compromise workplace safety.

To illustrate, suppose a construction manager has a belief that falls from heights are the primary safety concern on the worksite.

This manager may unconsciously focus their attention on fall-related incidents, overlooking or downplaying other potential hazards, such as electrical hazards. In a rush to meet a deadline, workers performing electrical tasks might not receive adequate supervision or resources, increasing the likelihood of electrical accidents.

2. Perception of Confidence Bias

Perception of confidence bias occurs when we overestimate our own abilities or expertise while underestimating the abilities of others. Due to our overconfidence, we may dismiss valuable input from coworkers, overlook potential hazards, or make critical safety errors.

Imagine a supervisor with extensive experience in concrete pouring who believes they possess superior knowledge and skills in the area.

As a result, they may disregard suggestions or warnings from workers with different expertise, leading to mistakes in the concrete pouring process. These errors could compromise the structural integrity of the construction project, posing serious safety risks.

3. Groupthink

Groupthink is a phenomenon where individuals within a group prioritise maintaining harmony and consensus over critical thinking. When teams suffer groupthink, they tend to stifle diverse viewpoints, discourage dissent, and result in flawed decision-making processes that compromise safety on construction sites.

Consider a construction team working on a high-pressure project. In a meeting, one member proposes an alternative approach to a potentially hazardous task, suggesting additional safety measures.

However, due to the desire to maintain harmony and avoid conflict, the rest of the team readily agrees to proceed with the original plan. This lack of critical evaluation can result in accidents that could have been prevented.

4. Overconfidence Bias

Overconfidence bias refers to our tendency to have an inflated sense of our own abilities, knowledge, or judgement. Such overconfidence may lead to the neglect of safety protocols, underestimation of risks, and a higher likelihood of engaging in unsafe behaviours, putting yourself and others at risk.

Picture a seasoned construction worker who has successfully completed similar tasks numerous times.

Due to their overconfidence, they might neglect safety protocols or take unnecessary risks. For example, they may decide not to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) while operating heavy machinery, leading to accidents and injuries.

5. Anchoring Bias

Anchoring bias occurs when we rely heavily on initial information or impressions when making subsequent judgements or decisions. This bias may lead us to focus narrowly on specific hazards or circumstances and neglect other potential risks or safety considerations in the workplace.

Imagine a construction manager receiving a safety report highlighting a recent incident involving a faulty scaffold.

This incident might create an anchoring bias, causing the manager to focus excessively on scaffold-related issues while overlooking other potential hazards. Consequently, other critical safety concerns, such as chemical exposure or equipment malfunction, might be inadvertently neglected, leading to accidents.

Reducing Biases that Lead to Workplace Accidents

By implementing prevention measures that cut across all biases, construction managers can create a safety-conscious environment that fosters collaboration, critical thinking, and continuous improvement.

Here are some key strategies you can use:

  • Promote an open and inclusive safety culture that values input from all workers. This can minimise confirmation bias by encouraging diverse perspectives and alternative viewpoints in ways that ensure potential hazards are thoroughly assessed and addressed.
  • Foster collaboration and open communication channels that allow workers to express concerns or suggestions without fear of retribution. This promotes a supportive environment where knowledge sharing and skill development can thrive, reducing the likelihood of critical errors caused by overconfidence or underestimating the abilities of others.
  • Encourage individual thinking and constructive dissent to help combat teams’ tendency toward groupthink and enable team members to challenge decisions when safety is at stake. By encouraging critical evaluation and diverse opinions, the potential for flawed decision-making and overlooked risks is minimised. Scratchie is well placed to aid in this area.
  • Provide regular safety training and refresher courses to combat complacency and overconfidence. Regular micro training and education ensures workers are equipped with up-to-date knowledge of safety protocols and are aware of the potential consequences of disregarding them. This helps to counteract overconfidence, ensuring that workers remain vigilant and adhere to necessary safety measures.
  • Implement robust risk assessment practises to systematically consider a broad range of potential hazards. By avoiding tunnel vision on specific hazards and encouraging cross-functional collaboration, construction sites can identify and address potential risks comprehensively, minimising the impact of anchoring bias on decision-making.

Fostering Safety-Conscious Communication

Any effort to overcome unconscious bias and increase safety takes openness and team involvement. This is why rich communication channels are crucial for creating a robust safety culture in the construction industry.

Here are some channels you can create to have this effect:

  • Shorter, more regular safety meetings: Conduct shorter safety meetings where all team members, including managers, supervisors, and workers, can actually discuss safety concerns, share insights, and provide feedback, rather than simply being told. This creates a platform for open communication and encourages active participation from everyone involved.
  • Reward safe work: This is the heart of Scratchie, founded in a belief that encouraging desired behaviour yields better results long term than discouraging bad behaviour. Gamification has a lot to do with this.
  • Abbreviate safety committees or task forces: Establish safety committees or task forces comprising representatives from different departments or teams. These groups meet regularly to address safety issues, review incident reports, and propose improvements. They should be tasked with looking for good examples as well as hazards.
  • Anonymous reporting mechanisms: Implement anonymous reporting mechanisms such as suggestion boxes, online platforms, or confidential hotlines where workers can report safety concerns without fear of retribution. This encourages open communication by providing a safe space for individuals to express their observations, suggestions, or potential hazards.
  • Team-building activities: Organise team-building activities that promote collaboration and enhance interpersonal relationships. These activities can include safety-related workshops, simulations, or problem-solving exercises that encourage teamwork and foster a sense of shared responsibility for safety.
  • Feedback loops: Establish feedback loops where workers can provide feedback on safety protocols, procedures, or equipment. Encouraging workers to share their insights and experiences helps identify potential gaps in safety practises and enables continuous improvement.
  • Clear communication channels: Ensure that communication channels within the organisation are clear, accessible, and easy to use. This includes having designated safety contact persons, clearly defined reporting procedures, and utilising technology tools that facilitate efficient and transparent communication.

By implementing these strategies, construction organisations can create an environment that values collaboration and open communication, leading to improved safety outcomes and a stronger safety culture.

Rewarding Safe Behaviours with Scratchie: Empowering a Bias-Free Safety Culture

In the world of safety, it's crucial to address the hidden factors that can lead to workplace accidents.

Unconscious biases pose a significant risk, but by leveraging positive reinforcement and recognition, Scratchie offers a unique solution to counteract biases and foster a proactive safety culture.

By providing categorised rewards based on specific safety activities, Scratchie allows decision-makers to target and promote behaviours that are aligned with a bias-free approach to safety improvement.

By encouraging employees to celebrate and reward their colleagues' safe behaviours, Scratchie boosts engagement, vigilance, and safety communication, transforming safety from a mere compliance requirement into a proactive and rewarding experience.

Want to eradicate unconscious bias on your worksite? Join us for our live Procore Webinar in early August, and discover the innovative safety solution revolutionising Australia’s construction industry.


What is groupthink, and how does it impact safety in construction organizations?

Groupthink is a phenomenon where individuals within a group prioritize maintaining harmony and consensus over critical thinking. In construction organizations, groupthink can stifle diverse viewpoints, discourage dissent, and result in flawed decision-making processes that compromise safety on worksites.

What is constructive dissent?

Constructive dissent is the act of expressing differing opinions, concerns, or objections in a constructive and respectful manner. It involves voicing alternative viewpoints or challenging prevailing ideas, decisions, or practices related to safety, with the ultimate goal of improving safety outcomes.

In the construction industry, constructive dissent plays a vital role in preventing groupthink and ensuring that critical decisions are thoroughly evaluated. It encourages individuals to speak up when they perceive potential safety risks, identify flaws in safety procedures, or propose alternative approaches that could enhance safety measures.

How can an open and inclusive safety culture help mitigate unconscious bias in construction?

An open and inclusive safety culture values input from all workers, encourages diverse perspectives, and alternative viewpoints. This helps minimize confirmation bias and ensures potential hazards are thoroughly assessed and addressed, fostering a proactive and unbiased approach to safety in construction.

What role does regular safety training and refresher courses play in combating unconscious bias?

Regular safety training and refresher courses are crucial in combating unconscious bias by equipping workers with up-to-date knowledge of safety protocols. This helps counteract overconfidence, ensuring that workers remain vigilant, adhere to necessary safety measures, and understand the potential consequences of disregarding them.

How can Scratchie help create a bias-free safety culture in construction organizations?

Scratchie offers a unique solution to counteract unconscious biases by leveraging positive reinforcement and recognition.

By providing categorized rewards based on specific safety activities, Scratchie allows decision-makers to target and promote behaviors aligned with a bias-free approach to safety improvement, fostering a proactive safety culture through engagement, vigilance, and enhanced safety communication.

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