By Phil La Duke
Hazard analysis is key to appropriately protecting workers from dangers in the workplace, but too often we do a mediocre job. Protecting workers from the hazards they are likely to encounter can’t be a half measure and most workplaces would benefit from better and more accurate hazard analysis and risk management. Like Goldilocks, Hazard Analysis needs to be just right—not overly protective, but also not overly reliant on common sense, probability, or good luck.
People conducting Hazard Analysis often tend to focus too greatly on the physical hazards endemic to so many workplaces; it makes sense, physical hazards are easy to spot and the hazards associated with them are easy to predict. Unfortunately it is the hazards most likely to result in serious injury—or fatalities—in the greatest source of variation: human behavior. This is the point where I typically launch into one of my tiresome rants about the evils about Behavior Based Safety, but not today. The reality is that hazard analysis must consider human behavior because it is so unpredictable and potentially lethal.
Studies have shown that the average person makes between five and eight errors an hour. (Suck on that all you armchair editors!) Most of these mistakes are benign that have no real consequences. Human errors seem to be our sub consciousness mind experimenting with the safety of our surroundings; a means of testing the safety of rapid adaptation. Sometimes the result is serendipitous discovery and in other cases the result is injury. Many people who conduct hazard analysis create work plans and Job Safety Analysis (JSAs) plan for a perfect world. Even though we know for certain that people will make mistakes and there is nothing shy of rewiring the human brain that can do to prevent mistakes, but we can prevent people from being harmed from these mistakes if we accurately predict the mistakes we can generally implement countermeasures to prevent the associated injuries.
Risk is part of life and created a hazard analysis that doesn’t predict and address the very likely probability that people will take risks—from shortcuts to bad habits—isn’t worth very much, at least in terms of protecting workers. Hazard analysis should clearly identify the areas where workers are most likely going to take risks. In terms of risks, the likelihood of risk-taking, and the level of risk taking is directly proportionate to the risk-to-reward ratio. The greater the disparity between the perceived rewards to the probability of failure the more likely one is to take the risk.
Whenever I talk about the need for a comprehensive hazard analysis invariably I get people pushing back in the name of common sense. “Can’t we give people for a little ‘common sense’?” The answer is “no” because there is very little common sense in the world. Common sense is the product of a shared understanding of a situation by members of a population. As anyone who is from a small town can attest to, common sense decreases as the population size increases. In a small population, it’s easy to create solid mores, values, and taboos—these all grow out of decades of shared experience, the fabled “tribal knowledge” that corporate big wigs are always so desperate to capture. Unfortunately, as the population grows common sense/common knowledge shrinks inversely. So when people ask if they can count on people having “common sense” they are effectively counting on luck to protect people.
What Would Doris Do?
People can be damned stupid and reckless and the “perfect world” hazard analysis seldom captures the outlandish and reckless risks that an admittedly small portion of the population, may take on the job site. Unless we acknowledge that there is a chance, albeit a small chance, that workers will take outrageous and reckless chances we can’t adequately protect workers from this recklessness.
Recently I encountered a situation that exemplifies this tendency for some workers to take outrageous risks. I was outside a car rental office a couple of weeks ago when a United States Postal Service truck turned right onto a side walk and proceeded to drive approximately 40 feet down a public sidewalk. When I confronted her by asking, “did you really just drive down the sidewalk?” she snarled in defiance, “yes!”. “Don’t you have any regard for safety?” I asked and the only response I got from her was a hissing sound that sounded like something between a viper and air escaping a punctured tire. Finally I asked her if what she did was legal, to which she smirked and said “yes” in the tone of voice of a petulant child. I phoned the local postal office and reported her behavior and was asked if the door was open (it was) and if she was wearing seatbelts (she wasn’t). The person to whom I spoke told me that this woman had been recently disciplined for driving with the door of her vehicle open and for not wearing seat belts.
For those of you who don’t know, the USPS workers (at least those who drive company vehicles) jobs rely on the workers having a valid driver’s license and a good driving record. I’ve dubbed this woman Doris (although I have no way of knowing her real name) and I have adapted the popular, “What would Jesus Do?” slogan to hazard analysis. I encourage people to ask “What Would Doris Do?” when conducting hazard analysis. By asking what this addle-headed woman would do in a given work situation those who are conducting hazard analysis can understand that sometimes reasonableness and appropriate, rational responses to a situation.
If we continue to pretend that the workplace is perfect and the workers will not make mistakes, take risks, and behave as if they are whacked out of their heads on LSD we can never truly anticipate hazards in any sort of realistic context. When we recognize that we live—and more importantly work—in an imperfect world we can finally make appropriate decisions with respect to safety.