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4 Ways That Ambiguity Affects Workplace Safety

Builder or foreman puzzled by task

Several human factors are quite well-known by safety professionals. Nearly everyone agrees that fatigue can be a problem, and states like rushing and frustration can be spotted at some point in just about every workplace. But there are many other human factors that are less well known but that still influence safety outcomes, including ambiguity.

Ambiguity is generally defined as when something can be seen to have more than one meaning, or when the meaning of something is unclear. When it comes to safety, ambiguity is whenever a worker is uncertain or misunderstands what they have to do or how to complete a task safely. As a human factor in the workplace, it’s commonly overlooked, which is unfortunate because it can have dramatic consequences, including ambiguity leading to safety culture issues as well as serious injuries and fatalities.

Here are four ways that ambiguity can affect employees’ understanding of the task at hand. With so many different potential causes of ambiguity, it’s essential for safety professionals to be able to recognize where uncertainty comes from before they can do something about it.

Peer influences

No one intentionally attempts to mislead their coworkers about the task at hand in order to make things more dangerous. But there are still several ways that workers can influence their colleagues.

The first is that some workers can fear looking inexperienced if they ask too many questions. When initial instructions are provided to a group of workers, some people may be disinclined to ask clarifying questions because they don’t want to seem “stupid”.

The flip side of this is a strong desire to prove oneself to others. Workers may want to project an air of capability and can make assumptions rather than asking questions or taking the time to make sure they fully understand what they have to do, as well as recognize the potential hazards associated with the task.

Supervisory influences

Crew supervisors can have a major impact on the workplace safety climate. If they have responded negatively in the past to workers who are uncertain about something—such as by being dismissive or condescending about safety questions—then that will have a dampening effect on workers’ willingness to be proactive about dispelling ambiguity. So will a supervisor who seems closed off or unapproachable. All of this results in employees who feel like they cannot ask for confirmation about a task.

Similarly, when there is a lack of trust or engagement between workers and supervisors, there can be a social barrier that limits employees’ perceived ability to clear up ambiguity. This is also the case with supervisors who exert production pressure by asking employees to work quickly or by emphasizing that things need to happen urgently. Seeking clarification and additional explanations can take time, and demonstrating that the team is in a rush can dissuade workers from raising questions or other safety issues.

Workplace influences

Several environmental or workplace conditions may also be a factor in ambiguity. If instructions are given in a noisy or busy environment then it can be harder for workers to hear or follow along.

Unclear or outdated written instructions, signs and other material can also be a factor that can mislead employees or cause confusion. This is more likely to be the case if there has been a recent change in processes.

Personal influences

Finally, all sorts of individual influences can affect the degree of uncertainty that each worker may have. Language barriers, poor listening skills, or atypical cognitive processing abilities may alter how employees hear, understand and remember safety guidelines. These can easily lead to assumptions, misunderstandings and partial grasps on the task at hand.

And don’t forget that human factors don’t operate in isolation. Certain factors like fatigue or distraction can make it harder for employees to focus on instructions when they’re delivered, or to remember them after the fact.

When human factors compound, it’s especially important to rely on the knowledge and skills that were learned in human factors training. And if you notice a high degree of uncertainty or ambiguity in the workplace and you haven’t yet conducted this type of training then it might be time for you to consider it. This is especially true if you notice ambiguity combined with rushing, fatigue and other human factors. And keep in mind that other human factors can also make ambiguity affect risk perception even more than it usually does.

In the end, ambiguity is a frequent feature in the workplace, but it’s hardly inevitable. Recognizing what causes it, and then taking steps to deal with it, such as implementing human factors training, and ensuring supervisors are skilled at managing with human factors in mind, can go a long way to minimizing the misunderstandings that might be putting workers at risk.

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