By Phil La Duke
We all take risks, there’s a saying that when you’re driving, anyone driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac. Okay, I don’t know if it qualifies as a saying, per se, but I’ve heard it said. So even if it’s not a saying, I think most of us believe it. In a way we’re hypocrites—we label the same behavior in roughly the same circumstance as either acceptable or not, largely based on whether or not the risk taken are by us or by others.
I was talking to a colleague the other day on this very subject. She asked me, “how do we get people to understand their inconsistency in risk tolerance?” She went on to explain that people tend to have one level of tolerance for their own behaviors (“I’m only going to be in there for a minute”), quite another for their loved ones (especially their children “What’s wrong with you, didn’t you even consider…?”) and an even lower tolerance for strangers. This dynamic isn’t hard to understand it all centers around control and outcomes.
Control Versus Misplaced Confidence
“I don’t have to wear a motorcycle helmet, because I am an excellent driver and have so much control over my bike.” I’ve heard this argument so many times it makes me want to smack the person in his helmetless head. You can race motorcycles professionally, have the best crew that keep your bike in the best possible condition, in short you and your machine can be in an optimal position for tearing through curves at 130 mph. But, and this is a point that many safety practitioners miss, controls (behavioral and engineering) tend to be static, and we live in a dynamic world. Tearing across the motorcycle racetrack at top speed may make the driver FEEL in control, but well…you can only control what you can control. For every element that you control, the condition of the motorcycle, the speed at which you enter the curves, how and when you adjust your weight there are probably hundreds (if not thousands) of things you can’t control, from the condition of the track to the weather to the behaviors and errors of other riders. In short, many skilled motorcyclists with highly tuned machines go over the high side and end up dead. Their controls were static and applied to a dynamic world.
But let’s face it, few of us have finely tuned automobiles complete free from defect and are expert drivers with professional level skills. In fact, most of us just don’t have a clue how out of control we really are. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I drive better drunk, because I am more focused on my driving and alert to other hazards?” I have, and this is of course hogwash. Scientific study after scientific study has shown that a seriously inebriated driver is far more dangerous than one that is not (of course, it’s worth noting that the seriously inebriated driver who IS focused on his or her driving is probably less dangerous than one that is not, but that is a ridiculous argument.) We feel more confident taking personal risks because we believe that we can react quicker, use common sense, and retain our own physical abilities to mitigate the dangers of injuries when we are taking the risks.
You’ve probably noticed that I’m talking about us and not the people we are hired to protect (and whether or not that is truly the case is a matter for another post); that’s deliberate. Until we understand our old role in people’s misunderstanding of risk we can’t truly make any meaningful advances in safety.
I’ve said it before and said it again that “safety” is the probability that we will not be harmed, and if that is true than “risk” is the probability that we will be harmed. Probability is more than just the odds that something will or will not happen, but that is an exceptional simplification of probability. I am not a math teacher, nor am I an expert in probability, however there are some things from probability that I do know, and I believe these things apply to safety. The first concept is what I call the clean dice concept. The clean dice concept assumes that if we were to roll two standard six-sided dice that the odds would remain constant, that the dice aren’t loaded, that is, weighted in a way so as to unfairly return a given result. In pure probability calculation one identifies the number of equal number of possibilities (assuming clean dice) divided by the possibilities that meet defined conditions.
If we use the most widely known example, the tossing of a coin the formula would look like this: # of possibilities divided by the number of possible outcomes. In other words 1 divided by 2 = .5. .5 expressed as a percentage is 50% or there is a 50:50 shot at he flipped coin coming up heads.
The problem with safety is our role is to lower the risk of injury and too often we lack enough information to make a truly informed (and responsible) choice. Let’s take, for example, driving 1 mile to the store, buying a carton of milk and returning unharmed. Well for starters in the real world we don’t have the luxury of “equally likely outcomes”. Weather, traffic, road conditions, driving speed, other number of customers at the gas station, and numerous other factors are all variables that we would need to consider. These variables combine to make it less likely that we will accomplish our goal. Let’s look at just one of them: weather—it could be a variety of temperatures, barometric pressures, types and volumes of precipitation. It could be windy or calm, hailing or sunny, snowing or blowing a sandstorm. There are in fact too many variables and they aren’t equal.
There’s also the problem of the condition of “safety” where effectively nothing (or at very least nothing BAD) happens. Why am I going on about this? Because too many of us believe that the probability of not being injured is much lower than it is. We as safety professionals artificially (and given the millions of variables at play one could say arbitrarily) assign risk and ominously and parentally warn people of the risk of injury.
So safety isn’t really the probability of not getting injured, it’s the chance that our work won’t hurt us and while it is impossible to predict the probability (nice try Heinrich) of a given injury we can still be confident in telling people that the more variability and risk they add to how they approach the job the greater the chance that they will be injured.