Roofer, Construction Worker Safety | Risk Compensation

  • Experts have found that roofers take more risks in situations they feel safer.
  • This “risk compensation” is a kind of cognitive bias that affects everyone.
  • Employers should invest in additional training to help workers avoid it.

    Researchers have discovered something dangerous and seemingly contradictory in the state of building safety: roofers with more safety equipment are actually more likely to behave in a more risky manner, which reduces the overall safety of workers.

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fatal work-related declines rose 26 percent between 2011 and 2016. That alarming number prompted a team of civil engineering researchers at Virginia Tech and Clemson University to dig a little deeper. Shouldn’t safety technology have the opposite effect in the event of a fall?

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    The scientists suspected that roofers felt a false sense of security when working with robust safety equipment. It’s a documented psychological phenomenon known as risk compensation, they explain in their study that appears in the Journal of Construction Engineering and Management.

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    In the rooftop scenario, workers can be overly comfortable with safety measures such as containment barriers, causing them to move closer to the edge of the roof than they would normally be. “”[W]Orkers could fall victim to cognitive bias as shortcuts that ultimately lead to risky decisions, “Sogand Hasanzadeh, one of the scientists involved in the work, told Engineering News-Record.

    Think of some risk compensation like using bumpers for bowling. If you know your ball can’t fall down the gutter, you can aim right at it and see what happens. You may stop aiming your ball.

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    To test their hypothesis, the researchers conducted a unique experiment with virtual reality headsets. First they screened the students to find a group with experience in construction, then they trained the students on the basics of installing roof shingles.

    The researchers placed the student volunteers who worked as unskilled roofers in a virtual environment to simulate roofing work. Next, the researchers assigned the students to one of three randomly arranged safety equipment levels:

    “Some members only wore personal protective equipment (hard hat, gloves and knee pads) but no fall protection. Some wore PPE and a fall protection system. A third group had PPE, a fall protection system and a guardrail.”

    At the higher security levels, “more security measures (ie, higher levels of fall protection) created a sense of invulnerability among participants,” the researchers found. “This false sense of security ultimately increased their risk behavior by up to 55 percent: the participants stepped closer to the edge of the roof, leaned over the edge and spent more time exposing themselves to the risk of falling.”

    Risk compensation is not just a phenomenon among construction workers. It is a cognitive tendency – or a systematic mistake of reasoning – that affects us all. A key example is football, where head injuries are so likely that some experts have suggested closing youth football entirely. In a 2004 editorial in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, researchers said the advent of football helmets changed the game and codified an instance of risk compensation.

    In front of the helmet, players were taught to lead with their shoulders in one-on-one combat. When helmets became the norm, coaches urged players to use their heads as it was considered safe to do so. “In the period from 1955 to 1964, the number of fatalities in drilling increased significantly compared to 1945 to 1954, which lasted until 1974,” the researchers explain.

    A French roofer works on a zinc roof of a Paris building on August 24, 2017

    AFP contributorGetty Images

    You can even get risk compensation on the go. Drivers with blind spot detectors built into their mirrors, for example, may be less susceptible to checking for these points. (For what it’s worth, be sure to still look at your blind spots – these sensors can malfunction or give false positives.)

    The roof experiment suggests that a similar phenomenon plays a role in construction. This could mean, according to researchers, that a new type of training or monitoring system is needed to ensure workers don’t rely on cognitive bias and put their safety at risk.

    Meanwhile, more risk offsetting work is underway at Purdue University, with researchers assessing electrical workers’ line work and other construction-related tasks. These studies will also take into account how productivity requirements and time pressures affect workers’ risk behavior.

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