Chronic Unease Explained
If you work in a dangerous industry such as oil and gas, mining or construction, chances are you have heard the term ‘chronic unease’ at some point.
Although the term sounds like a serious medical condition, it is anything but that.
In this article, we shall take a deeper look at this unusual term and try to understand how it can help us increase workplace safety.
What is chronic unease?
The simplest definition of chronic unease is a state of mind where an individual is constantly worried about something going wrong and an incident occurring.
It is a healthy scepticism of the way things are and how they could contribute to unsafe situations. It dismisses the notion that just because safety incidents haven’t occurred, they never will.
Thus, chronic unease is a safety mindset. When we break the term up, we get the words ‘chronic’ and ‘unease’ which mean ‘persistent’ and ‘discomfort’ respectively.
Whenever something feels off, the observer must feel uneasy, get to the root of the problem and rectify it before it gets out of hand.
Having this state of mind is encouraged even when the situation is seemingly perfect. If no safety incident has occurred in a while, the likelihood of occurrence only increases as people start disregarding safety circulars, SOPs, warnings, etc.
Thus, we can also understand chronic unease as the opposite of complacency. The worry about safety incidents is always present at the back of the mind.
This enables safe and cautious operation of machines, keeping a close watch on process parameters and following all the steps in a checklist when performing critical tasks.
Weak signals and chronic unease
There are a lot of ways for things to go wrong in high-hazard industries. In most cases, the origins of a problem can be traced back to human error.
But factors such as equipment failure, mechanical failure, structural failure, etc. could also lead to safety slips.
In almost all cases, however, a safety incident is preceded by some signals that are not so apparent. It is easy to miss them. These signals are known as weak signals.
Identifying them in time can be the difference between the prevention and occurrence of undesirable incidents.
By practising chronic unease, we can identify these signals and act on them before they become dangerous to the employees and the machinery that are a part of that situation.
Some examples of weak signals are:
- Corrosion in unexpected places
- Incomplete paperwork for critical tasks
- Insufficient safety knowledge and PPE usage
- Unusual noise, smell, vibration, readings, alarms in an equipment
- Actions that do not comply with established procedures
- An employee looking puzzled while operating an important equipment
- Supervisors dismissing valid concerns of the employees working under them
When such signals appear, chronic unease encourages their investigation and rectification.
Timely action is crucial and can prevent hazardous incidents such as nuclear release, oil spills, collision, grounding, train derailment, serious injuries and casualties.
Crucial elements of Chronic Unease
The Royal Dutch Shell funded a research paper that focused on improving chronic unease in managers.
After a literature review, the research team concluded that there were five common characteristics in employees with effective chronic unease. They are as follows:
- Flexible thinking
- Propensity to worry
- Requisite imagination
1. Flexible thinking
This refers to a responsible individual’s ability to think flexibly. He should be able to look at a situation from different perspectives.
Based on multiple sources of information, he evaluates the different aspects of a problem, questions assumptions and develops creative solutions to mitigate risks and prevent their recurrence.
Pessimism is an essential trait in individuals with chronic unease. Expecting failures and negative incidents leads the individual to reduce the amount of risks they are comfortable operating at.
A more pessimistic officer will set more controls to manage risks than a less pessimistic officer.
3. Propensity to worry
The tendency to worry could be permanent (regular worry about a large number of things) or transient (worry about a particular event e.g., bunkering operation on ships).
When a senior officer spends more time engaging in safety-related activities, the tendency to worry about safety incidents also increases.
This worry can prompt the individual to gather more information about risk levels and control measures and put additional controls in place if needed to avoid undesirable consequences.
4. Requisite imagination
An individual with chronic unease is able to project present behavioural and technical inconsistencies into future safety-related events.
This characteristic ensures that such inconsistencies are straightened in the nascent stage and the worst-case scenario is avoided.
Vigilance in this context refers to the act of seeking, gathering and analyzing safety-related information for any threats or inconsistencies.
The workers in high-hazard industries are bombarded with information throughout the day. This information may contain weak signals of safety risks.
To catch and analyze the signals effectively, the watchkeepers must be sensitive to stimuli over long periods of time. They must be able to separate the signal from the noise and take effective action.
Such an active attitude to safety risks increases the perception of risk levels and contributes to reducing them.
7 practical tips to develop chronic unease
Just like any other skill, it is possible to cultivate the values of chronic unease in employees. We list out some of the practices that can help us develop this effective mindset.
1. Get leaders involved
Culture flows from top to bottom. If we want everyone at our workplace to be mindful of safety risks, the leaders must be the first to display this attitude.
When leaders normalize one risk in public view, those working under them will be comfortable normalizing ten. The leaders must first be trained in a no-compromise attitude towards safety.
On the other hand, when the leadership is seen investing time to improve workplace safety, it cascades to every level of the organization. The junior officers inevitably follow and become more safety conscious.
2. Conduct safety events
Regular workshops to reorient the employees to the dangers of unsafe behaviours ensures they are well aware of them.
The safety event could be drills, safety audits, short daily safety meetings, weekly safety documentaries, felicitation of safe behaviours, etc.
Such events increase participation in safety programs and invite greater involvement in safety issues in the workplace.
3. Develop a baseline for equipment
Most equipment have set limits between which they operate. These limits could be rpm, voltage, amperage, salinity levels and so on.
We can use these and add more parameters to this list to ensure that we have an overall baseline of a machine’s performance. This could involve normal levels of noise, vibration and temperature.
Being aware of a baseline allows us to identify deviations sooner and take corrective action. This is the first step in chronic unease. Being able to identify weak signals.
4. Investigate weak signals
Just identifying weak signals is not enough. These weak signals must be reported to those in charge and addressed promptly.
All employees must be in the habit of bringing observed weak signals to the notice of the concerned officers. Let us understand the importance of this with a real-life incident.
On one of our ships, the watchkeeping engineer noticed a slight increase in operational noise in one of the seawater pump motors. He notified the 2nd engineer who confirmed the same.
The 2nd engineer then checked the bearing temperature with the help of an infrared thermometer and noticed it was overheated.
The standby pump was put into use and the running pump was stopped and investigated.
They found that the bearing was overheating due to a lubrication failure. The bearing was changed in time and major downtime and costs were avoided due to the identification, investigation and rectification of the signal.
5. Think deliberately
Develop a slow and methodical approach to solve weak signals and inconsistencies. Gather information from multiple sources such as manuals, SOPs, about a problem.
Don’t jump to conclusions before getting your facts right, especially in critical situations.
6. Ensure barriers are in place at all times
Safety features are built into equipment for a reason. When these features stop working and are not rectified, it becomes risky to operate the machines.
A good safety culture stops the work in such scenarios until the safety feature is operational again. Even when there are multiple safety barriers, they must be independent of each other.
Bypassing one safety interlock in the hope that others will prevent safety incidents must never be acceptable.
For example, when a manhole door is opened for inspection, the area must be cordoned off. But also, warning signals and a crew member must be posted at the location to ensure that visitors are made aware of the open manhole.
7. Encourage dialogue
The leadership must enable productive dialogue between all the different departments.
The leaders must probe deeper to find safety vulnerabilities and the safety professionals must be able to state safety concerns in clear terms without fear of repercussions.
The operations team must understand their role in safe operations as well.
All departments must be accepting of bad news and be open to suggestions that can bring about improvements.
Downsides of chronic unease
For all its advantages, chronic unease also has some downsides that one must be aware of. Two of these are as follows:
1. Slower decision making
Those who follow chronic unease are susceptible to fall for unnecessary concerns that can significantly slow down the decision-making process. Only some of these concerns could lead to safety lapses.
But we must also measure this cost of chronic unease against not taking action or making poor choices which could lead to relatively serious consequences.
When practising chronic unease, it is important to maintain a balance.
If all one ever does is worry about things going wrong, chronic unease quickly becomes a paralytic force. This is highly undesirable.
Paranoia can also lead to inaction and ineffective solutions as well and one must guard against this byproduct of chronic ease.
At its core, chronic unease is understanding that low-frequency but high-danger events can take place at our workplace as well.
It pushes us to look for those signals that indicate the onset of such events well in advance.
It discourages becoming complacent during periods with no safety incidents and understanding that this is the precisely the time when such events usually occur.
This is because complacency sets in and people start thinking that such events cannot take place here.
The goal is to change the conversation from ‘That event cannot happen here’ to ‘How can that event happen here and what can we do about it?’
- L.S. Fruhen, R.H Flin & R. McLeod (2014) Chronic unease for safety in managers: a conceptualisation, Journal of Risk Research, 17:8, 969-979, DOI: 10.1080/13669877.2013.822924