Risky Behaviour Is A Fact Of Life

by Phil La Duke

This is the 100th post to my personal blog.  Thank you to all of  you who have made this blog an important voice in worker safety. I hope you enjoy it enough to share it with others.

Last week I explored the world of human error, that is, those mistakes that our brains make subconsciously that cause unintended and unwanted consequences.  This week I will take a look at another injury cause, at risk behavior. At risk behavior makes safety professionals salivate like Pavlov’s dog.  After all, if we can only dissuade people from taking unnecessary risks we can greatly reduce the probability of injuries, right? Well as usual, controlling people’s decision making is harder than it might seem.

Why is it so hard to get people to avoid unnecessary risk? because, as Robert Long points out in his book of the same name, risk makes sense.  (For a copy of Long’s book follow the link on http://www.safetyrisk.com.au/  it’s a good read and provides a wealth of insight about why risk is not only unavoidable, in most cases it is something we want to encourage.)  Getting people to stop taking risks is like trying to get people to be taller, which is to say, impossible.  Risky behavior is almost as deeply biologically ingrained as errors and attempts to prevent it are pretty much doomed.

Risk Makes Sense

I won’t rehash Long’s work here (I give you enough free reading, buy the man’s book for crying out loud!), but in broadest strokes, people take risks because humans have a deep-seated need for expediency.  We take the shortest path even if it might be a bit more dangerous.  We approach the job in the easiest ways in different to what might happen. And we will risk dropping the grocery bag by carrying too big a load just to save us another trip. It only seems stupid when things go wrong, and in most cases things go just fine.

Risk Is In The Eye of the Beholder

People out there take risks that I would never take.  Walking a tightrope without a net, wrestling an alligator, or making waffle while driving people take risks that I think are just plain stupid, and that’s why I don’t engage in such activities (I don’t even know where I can buy a waffle iron with a cigarette lighter power adaptor.) So why aren’t risks universal? Simple, the level of risk is based on personal perception, and perceptions aren’t always based on rational experience.  Let me give you an example.  I surf.  I fully acknowledge that a) surfing can be dangerous, particularly for someone who doesn’t do it well and b) I don’t surf well.  When I tell people I surf, which I do with irritating regularity, (friend will tell you that it seems come up in conversation frequently, especially if I am in the company of an attractive woman that I am trying to impress) invariably people ask me if I am afraid of sharks.  I am not afraid of sharks.  The likelihood of a fat man from Michigan (about a 4 day’s drive to the nearest surfable beach) are about the same as me winning the lottery while getting stuck by lighting (According to The Guardian, one’s chances of being killed by a shark are 1 in 251,800,000.)  Over the years I have met scores of people who are absolutely phobic about the ocean because they so strongly fear sharks. So much so, that recently I recommended that a Las Vegas bartender get tested for rabies because she was so incredibly hydrophobic.  These people will continue to make decisions (albeit, not many that are likely to make career decisions) based on a perception of the risk of shark attacks that are wholly their own and that have little basis in facts. And people in the workplace consistently take risks completely out of whack with the reward, but perception of risk is every thing.

We Teach Ourselves that Risks are Lower Than They Are

Every time we take a risk and we don’t suffer a negative consequence we teach ourselves that the risk is lower than it might actually be.We speed, and when we don’t get pulled over we teach ourselves that speeding is worth the risk. What’s worse is that more often than not the reward far outweighs the negative consequences.  Whether exceeding the speed limit to gain a couple of minutes in the morning or failing to lock out the energy before repairing a piece of equipment, or entering a restricted area for “just a minute”, we are rewarded for our risk taking while at the same time not be punished for it.  And as long as safety management processes reward the absence of a negative outcome without addressing the risk taking injuries will not only continue to occur, but they will likely go unreported.  Here is how this thought process works.  A worker is forced with a choice, park the fork lift he is driving in the designated area before going on break, or parking it half in the pedestrian walk way and half in the aisle in front of the break room.  The worker knows that this increases the risk of an injury because he has obstructed a busy pedestrian area AND has obstructed the aisle both conditions cause traffic to move in an area that was not intended for them. Since the driver has done this frequently and no one was ever injured he erroneously judges the risk of injury to be very low.  The driver weighs the time and trouble it will take him to walk from the parking area (and the loss of his, against the (in his mind) highly unlikely and heads blissfully off to his lunch break.  It is not until someone is injured that this practice is likely to stop, unless the consequences for taking this risk create a perception of risk that must be avoided (like firing a couple of fork lift drivers, for example).  But realistically, why don’t plants have parking spaces near the places where people will be frequently?  The answer to that is also the answer to many facilities hazards: because plants and warehouses are designed under the assumption that vehicles will always be in motion.  In most cases in my experience there is insufficient parking in an industrial work place so drivers have to improvise an often those ad hoc parking places create serious hazards.

We Encourage People To Take Risks

In many cases we develop a safety rule or job instruction that impedes the expeditious completion of a task.  We make the most direct route to the bathroom a restricted area; we require hot, ill-fitting protective equipment; or otherwise make the jobs more difficult to do.  Faced with doing a job that is, in the eyes of the worker, needlessly protected given his or her perceived risks, the worker is likely to chance it.  And what about those situations where the operation isn’t running according to the standard procedures? Do we shut down operation because of parts shortages? Do we send everyone home because we are short-handed? Of course not, we take risks.

The answer lies, not in discouraging risk taking, but in training workers to make better decisions by training them how to better assess the risk of what they are planning to do.  People will take risks and there is nothing we can do to change that.   But there is much that we can do to teach people how to assess those risks and make appropriate judgments relative to risk and reward.

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