Do your team work in “Rat Park” or “Rat Hell”, and does this make any difference to workplace safety?
An interesting study by Bruce Alexander* on the cause of drug addiction was mentioned recently on an ABC radio science program. The researcher attempted to show that the environment, not the addictive property of the drug itself, was the major factor in becoming addicted and causing anti-social behaviour.
* Study by B.K. Alexander first published in Psychopharmacology in 1980.
Traditional laboratory experiments put rats in cramped metal cages (Rat Hell) and some even tethered the rats to a drug injection machine, and not unsurprisingly they found the stressed rats consumed large quantities of the drugs and became addicted.
Alexander built Rat Park, a large interesting enclosure 200 times larger than a standard laboratory cage, with other rats of both sexes and plenty of food and toys to play with. Rat Park had two sources of water, one dispenser with plain water and another dispenser with morphine laced water.
The rats in Rat Park avoided the morphine laced water, even when it was sweetened (rats have a sweet tooth). The conclusion of the study was that “severely distressed animals, including people, will relieve their distress pharmacologically if they can”, e.g. take drugs.
So what is the connection to workplace safety? We see long distance truck drivers taking “No Doze” (e.g. caffeine stimulants) drugs to cope with fatigue, and we see workers with chronic back injuries taking medications to ease their pain, which might affect their ability to work safely, and so on. If you see staff suffering similar symptoms or significant trends in undesirable behaviour consider your work environment and ask “is it Rat Park or Rat Hell?”
It is not just about having pleasant working conditions, it is also how we interact and help each other at work (and home).
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