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NIOSH director urges safety professionals to overcome biases

February 18, 2010

Safety professionals need to overcome individual biases and complacency to avoid decision-making failures and ensure workers stay safe, NIOSH Director John Howard cautioned this week.

Speaking Tuesday at the 20th Annual Construction Safety Conference & Exposition in Rosemont, IL, Howard cited historical events such as the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs operation to overthrow Fidel Castro and the 1986 loss of the Challenger Space Shuttle as examples of decision-making failures. He said such failures are due, in part, to individual biases in which people can be overconfident and rely too heavily on data that confirms pre-existing beliefs while downplaying contrary information.

Decisions made at the group level, Howard asserted, often are inferior to those that may be made by the best-qualified individual in the group. He said more disconfirming questions need to be asked.

Howard recommended attendees challenge a lack of constructive dialogue in their organizations and ensure small deviations from safety do not become the norm.