Legitimizing Risk

goldfish jumping out of the water

By Phil La Duke

Several days ago the United States celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the first step toward its becoming a sovereign nation.  It was an event marked in the state of Michigan by the irresponsible and dangerous use of fireworks by drunken amateurs with no training.  Michigan shortsightedly recently repealed a decades long ban on these types of explosives.  Michigan also recently rescinded a requirement that motorcyclists wear helmets while riding.  These two important laws designed to protect people are just the most recent erosion of public support for safety.  I’ve written at length about the alarming shift in public opinion toward the belief that at home or at work we have gone overboard with safety, so I won’t repeat myself.  Instead, I thought I would focus on how legalization (whether in the traditional legal sense or in the relaxation of work rules) endorses and legitimizes unsafe practices—if something is allowed most people assume that it’s safe.

In a similar vein, if we have rules and regulations to which we turn a blind eye we are effectively sending the message that the rules don’t matter; that they don’t really protect us, they are just a means to keep order in the workplace.  This further reinforces the idea that disregarding a safety regulation isn’t really putting anyone in harm’s way. When people believe an activity is is safe they are more likely to take risks while engaging in said activity.  If we believe that a shortcut puts us at less risk than it in fact does, we sharply increase both the probability (if you believe that the amount of interaction increases the probability) and (perhaps) the severity of the injury (if for instance, emergency response equipment is not maintained, or if the requirements for drills are ignored).

My intent is not to wax political, in broad strokes I don’t care if the law requires helmets  or outlaws fireworks, but the legitimization of  hazards seems, at least to me, to be a growing problem—both internal to the workplace and external to it.  As companies pull themselves out of the economic hole it has been easy to let maintenance issues accumulate.  This in itself isn’t a bad thing; I’ve said for ages that the safest companies are those who went out of business because they were foolish with their spending and unable to prioritize expenditures.  But I’ve seen a rise in complacency and a lack of operational discipline that puts lives and livelihoods at risk.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

As workers and companies become more comfortable with hazards the hazards cease to motivate them to take reasonable care.  Why is it now necessary to ensure that industrial vehicles are checked for defects and taken out of service and repaired when it was no big deal a year ago, after all, nobody has been hurt in all that time?  The fact that companies were forced to take risks (putting off maintenance, removing unsafe tools and equipment from service, letting training slide longer than one should, etc.) and suffered no meaningful consequences (governmental budget cuts have meant that, for many locations, surprise visits from regulators—and their subsequent findings—have been exceedingly rare) has left many wondering if those safety protections were necessary in the first place.

The company isn’t alone in its cavalier attitude toward workplace hazards; workers are also more likely to take more and greater risks in this climate.  Even as companies diligently try to create more of an empowered approach to safety and improve their safety cultures, five years or more, of neglect for respecting hazards has greatly increased individual’s risk tolerances.  This increased tolerance for risk manifests in individuals doing things they might ordinarily have avoided.  When we think of individuals taking risks, it’s natural to think of front-line workers, but there are others taking risks whose faulty decision making is far more dangerous.  When crew chiefs, foremen, supervisors, and others whose decisions can have severe consequences for a large population the danger to workers becomes exponential.  A single flawed decision from an Operations leader can lead to catastrophic chain of events that kill multiple workers and become international news.

Denial Isn’t Just A River In Egypt

For many companies the problem just isn’t that bad. In the mind of some leaders the fact that nothing bad has happened yet is pretty good proof that it will never happen.  These organizations have been living in a collective denial (it’s difficult knowing that you are operating at heightened risk simply because you can’t afford to fix things and it’s comforting to believe that nothing is likely to happen, and if something DOES happen, it most likely won’t be serious.)  Unfortunately, risks tend to grow and unless there is some form of intervention hazards will continue to build until they reach a threshold where injury is all but certain.  And years of under-reporting borne from fear of job loss, corporate programs aimed at reducing “recordable” injuries instead of reduction of risk and the elimination of ALL injuries, has reinforced the idea that companies have things under control when, in fact, they may not.

Reversing the Trend

For most organizations the problem of legitimizing risk did not happen over night and unfortunately it needs to be rapidly reversed. One solution is a performance audit.  A performance audit is different from a compliance audit in several important ways. While a compliance audit is designed to determine the gap between what is legally required and the current state of an organization a performance audit goes far deeper.  The purpose of the performance audit is, in part, to assess the organization’s tolerance for risk and to present—often in jarring terms—the areas where immediate action must be taken.  Performance audits can open the eyes to hazards and unseen risks and reverse decades of incremental complacency and underestimation of hazards.  Performance audits are often pricey, and many organizations balk at the cost, especially as they are just beginning to limp out of the red and into the black, but these audits remain the best and most effective way of quickly breaking the trend toward legitimizing risk.


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