On Research

On Research: The role of ‘normalization of deviance’ in workplace injuries

Journal of Safety Research contributors talk about their work


What’s your study about?

The study is about normalization of deviance – the gradual acceptance of deviant states within an organization because of a lack of negative events over a long period of time.

Gradually, the norms get shifted from the original standard operating procedures.

It’s a phenomenon first studied by Diane Vaughan after the Challenger disaster. We wanted to look at research to get a contemporary understanding of normalization of deviance and see the commonalities and differences.

What drove your interest in studying the topic?

The underpinning theory of it – the gradual nature of accepting more and more deviant states. Again, it’s deviating from what you should be doing, the normal procedure.

Although the term “normalization of deviance” is often applied in organizational settings, it can also be applied on an individual basis – how we operate within our daily lives. Driving is one example.

We come to normalize a lot of deviant actions while we’re driving: speeding, the use of a mobile phone, etc. It becomes accepted because 99 times out of 100 nothing bad will happen. And it becomes normalized, but then something bad can happen.

Normalization of deviance is an under-researched topic. It seems like such a big phenomenon that can be applied to so many disasters, but when you look into how much research has been done on it, it’s quite low.

What are the biggest takeaways from the study?

One of the biggest takeaways is the insidious nature of normalization of deviance. People who deviate from the norm often aren’t aware of it. That’s essentially how it operates within a culture or a work group. They can’t see that they’ve deviated from the norms to the extent they have. That’s how it becomes ingrained within a work group. And that’s what makes it difficult to identify, tackle and research.

Based on the study and other recommendations, organizations should have external people assess their safety procedures, and then see if they’re accurate and whether people are following them. Something I definitely want to mention is that deviations are typically not a result of malice in any way from workers. Many factors contribute to people deviating from set procedures, including production pressure, culture, inadequate environmental design and leadership. Those play a role in how people tackle what’s basically put in front of them. And, usually, this is in order to either improve production or to just get the work done. And then we have psychological factors such as, “It’s always worked so far, so let’s just continue doing that.

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