Is It Worth The Risk?

By Phil La Duke


On Friday, I left Toronto to drive back to Detroit in a blizzard that at least one weatherman described as “the storm of the century”.  As I headed out from the Toronto office to my car, several colleagues told me to “be careful” or to “be safe”.  While the sentiments were sincere and the intentions well meaning and heartfelt, I wondered how useful this advice really was.

I want to be clear, I value the sentiments that people express when they say be careful, but it really doesn’t change my behavior.  I had a lot of time to think during my five-hour sojourn home—my policy is no cellphone use in the car, but it didn’t matter since my service wasn’t working since I was out of my home country.  It occurred to me that better advice would probably have been “is it worth the risk?”

This is an important topic, because whether you are talking about worker safety,  Just Culture, or virtually any personal or business decision, it all comes down to risk and whether or not the value is aligned with the risk. Despite this, many organizations continue to rely on telling people to be more careful as their primary defense against serious injury or fatality.

For my part, I had business that needing attending to on Saturday, so staying an extra night in Toronto was, for me, not a viable option.  So I was faced with a simple decision: was the risk of driving through a snowstorm worth getting home as scheduled (albeit almost certainly far later than I had planned or expected)?

I didn’t make the decision lightly; the possibility of dying in a blizzard or car accident was not something that I trivialized.  So I did a basic risk assessment, something that workers do every day, whether they realize it or not and irrespective of whether or not they have been trained to properly assess risk.

I looked at two factors as I conducted my ad hoc risk assessment, and they weren’t probability and severity.  Instead, I looked at factors that would increase my risks of accident and factors that would reduce my risks.

Increased Risk Decreased Risk
  • Snow
  • Unfamiliar route
  • Icy conditions
  • Worst of the storm was east of me headed north-east of me
  • The storm was predicted to lighten in Toronto at noon
  • Much of the route between Toronto and Detroit was expected to be clear
  • There were fairly larger cities (Cambridge, Hamilton, London, and Chatham) where I could stop and spend the night if my assumptions proved false
  • Traffic was far lighter than usual
  • I grew up in rural Michigan and have been driving in wintery conditions for over 35 years
  • I used my own car and was well aware of its performance characteristics on snow and ice
  • My vehicle was recently winterized
  • I keep a snow shovel and emergency response kit in my trunk
  • The bulk of my route would be a single expressway (fewer intersections)
  • Leaving afternoon afforded the ploughs to salt and clear the route.
  • I recognized that additional stopping time and slower speeds would be essential.
  • After reviewing the weather patterns and maps I believed that the bulk of my route would be clear.

I made it home safely and without incident.  Some of you may look at my decision as unduly risky, or even reckless, but I disagree. In fact, I believe that I identified my risks and took careful measures to ensure that should my assumptions turn out to be untrue I had contingencies in mind that I could implement.

Many serious injuries could be prevented if we taught workers a similar approach to their work. Instead of reminding workers to work safely we should be assisting them in making better decisions about their jobs, and teaching workers to ask these simple questions can do this:

What risk factors are present today that weren’t present yesterday? The workplace is always changing, everyday the tools get a bit duller, equipment parts are more fatigued and more likely to fail, there are part shortages, facility issues, and let’s face it, our bodies are getting older and a little less able to perform at peak levels.

  1. What factors are shaping my performance, and how effectively am I managing them? What are the things that are going on in my life that could take my head out of the game and cause problems? Did I have a fight with my spouse? Is my teenager in trouble with the law? Did I get enough sleep? Am I hungry, angry, or otherwise distracted? Am I hung over? Do I have the flu? While any one of these factors alone aren’t highly likely to cause an injury they add risk.
  2. Is there anything in the work area that doesn’t belong here?  Too often work areas become the dumping ground for obsolete stock, unused tools, and the general workplace dross that collects in any work environment.
  3. Am I using the right tools and equipment?  Human beings have a natural drive toward expediency and if the correct tool or machine isn’t available they have a wonderful tendency to improvise.  But this improvisation adds process variability and thus risk. (the people who design processes can only engineer the risks out of a process if they can predict those risk, using a spanner as a hammer isn’t exactly the kinds of things they look for in an FMEA.
  4. Have I been adequately trained and qualified to do this work? In many cases, workers BELIEVE they have been trained and qualified to do a job when in fact, the “training” they received is little more than observing a demonstration of how an experienced worker does the job.  Too often core training is so poor that a new worker may actually be received less than 10% of the skills that they need to do their job as designed.  Some of you may be thinking, “how does he figure?” well, let me tell you.

    Studies suggest that only about 20–30% of the skills taught in traditional training make it to the work area, and this falls to less than 5% unless the skills are practiced on the job within 48-hours of training (so much for training on Fridays and sending the workers home for the weekend immediately following the session.) So armed with this 5% of the skills the workers need to do the job, they begin working.  They are smart people so they figure out a way to do the job.  They learn safety issues through near misses, first aid cases, and the odd recordable.  They also drift from the 5% of the standard that they were “taught” to follow.  They also discover shortcuts—some actual and valuable time savers and others that increase the risk of injury.  In this case, we now have a veteran worker who is only 5% capable of doing the job as designed (and has 95% out of process behavior) who is tasked with “training” the new guy.  The new guy will probably retain only about 5%, but this 5% has been diluted by the veteran worker’s self-taught, on the job training.   The problem isn’t that the veteran is necessarily teaching the recruit dangerous practices, the problem is that we have no idea how much variation the veteran has added to the process and how much risk of injury now exists in this particular job.  And acting without any clue as to how much risk is endemic to a process is recklessness.

Assessing your risk of injury every time you do a job may seem like a ridiculous expectation of workers, but in cases where the most likely injury is lethal or fatal, this expectation should be institutionalized and enforced.


#just-culture, #risk, #risk-assessment-and-safety, #risk-factors, #worker-injuries