Normalizing Risk: What Could Go Wrong?


By Phil La Duke

I Know My Shoes Are Untied Mind Your Own Business and Lone Gunman Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence

I’ve written ad nauseum about the biggest threat to safety. I have to admit after 13 years me screaming my chicken-little, “the sky is falling” shtick is tiresome even to me, so I won’t assert this week’s topic is yet another “greatest threat to safety” but I think it is a grave threat to our safety and that is the normalization of risk. This practice goes far beyond the Safety function and none (and I mean none) of us are immune to it.

When tragedy strikes and a coworker dies we shake our heads in bewilderment and ask why would someone do something so reckless? How could someone be so stupid? Why would someone risk his life to save a few seconds.  But then, let he among us who has never normalized risk throw the first stone.

Normalizing risk, to a large extent helps us to function. If we didn’t normalize risk we could never cook, eat in a restaurant, or drive.  In all these cases we have to normalize risk to place ourselves in close proximity to a hot stove, frying pans, sharp utensils, or hot oil. Do you doubt me? Consider restaurants. We eat food raised by strangers, harvested by strangers, processed by strangers, transported by strangers, inspected by strangers, cooked by strangers, and served to us by strangers on plates washed by strangers, all in a building built and inspected by strangers. I’m not going to continue with the car example, because the smarter among you get the point and the dumber among you never will.  Besides, the people who routinely read this blog hoping to find something to outrage them have probably gotten bored and stopped reading.

I do think it’s worth considering that the single largest cause of death in the workplace falls under the (in my opinion much too broad to be useful category) of transportation accidents.  This could mean anything from someone struck by a car crossing a street to dying in a over-the-road tanker explosion. We don’t count deaths commuting to or from work as “work fatalities” but they do in most parts of the world, but the sheer number of highway deaths should give us pause, “ 1.25 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day.” of course that is world-wide and with almost 8 billion people this an infinitesimal percentage. I point out that because since I wrote Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention  a wormy little clod who gets an erection every time he thinks about a woman dying takes every opportunity to point out that despite what the Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Safety Council says, homicide, in his completely subjective opinion, is NOT the number one cause of death for women in the workplace. Frankly I will take my facts from the BLS or NSC than some water-head who wants to see women murdered in the workplace. I can only guess at his motivation—maybe he is planning to kill a woman—but in any case, here we have a man deliberately normalizing an extreme risk.  I should point out that violence against women in the workplace is not yet at epidemic levels. I get reminded of this a lot. This is how we normalize risk, we rationalize it by comparing it to other risks. Let me give you an example that is a little less emotional and alarmist: hippopotami kill more people each year than sharks do. This is a facile argument, it reminds me of a Willy and Ethel cartoon by the great Joe Martin.  Ethel says to her husband, “Mr. Johnson takes his wife out to dinner every Friday,” Willy, unmoved continues reading his paper. Ethel continues, “Mr. Johnson takes his wife out dancing once a month” again Willy says nothing. Ethel persists with, “Mr. Johnson helps his wife with the dishes everyday” to which Willy responds, “hon, why don’t you do us both a favor and stop comparing me to Mr. Johnson and start comparing me to some of those guys on death row?” I apologize to Mr. Martin if I got the dialog wrong, but the point remains, Willy is trying to deflect Ethel’s points by introducing a completely different and at best marginally related point.

We live in a world where there are no lies, where world leaders dismiss the irrefutable “as fake news” and where Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram posts are asserted largely unchallenged as fact. Normalization of aberrant behavior from grabbing a woman by the genitals to failing to vaccinate your children because an ex Playboy centerfold says it causes autism is running rampant.

So what can we do about it? Well I don’t have the answer but awareness campaigns aren’t going to help. Awareness campaigns are growing in importance in the battle against ignorance, but we KNOW that normalization of risk isn’t smart. We KNOW it can get someone killed (but probably won’t) until we normalize it to the point where it almost certainly will end in mayhem, at which point the culpable party will blame everyone but him/herself. Have you ever run a yellow light? My ex brother-in-law did, as did the car that turned left in front of him.  It wasn’t the first time either had engaged in this behavior; both had normalized and trivialized this risk. When the Bronco struck the Ford Fiesta in a thunderous crash it wasn’t speeding, the driver wasn’t drunk. When the dust settled the driver of the Fiesta’s girlfriend lay on the front seat bleeding and dying while her eight week old baby (who was in an unsecured child seat) lay dead on the backseat floor. Both drivers were charged although the prosecutor dropped the charges against the driver of the Fiesta because he was convinced he could not get a conviction. My brother-in-law was sent to prison for 11 years and he did every penny of it. I have never run a yellow light since (unless it was unsafe to stop).

We are so content with normalizing risk that if someone is terrified to leave the house (because they haven’t normalized risk) we brand them crazy agoraphobics and insist that they need psychiatric care.

Unfortunately, there is no way of telling how much we should normalize risks until the gruesome moment of no return. I didn’t invest this, but I will pass it along.  Before attempting any task ask yourself these questions:

  1. Have I been trained to do this task?
  2. Do I understand this task?
  3. Do I have the proper tools to do this task?
  4. Can I verify that I have done the task correctly?

These questions may not eliminate the normalization of risk, but it’s a start. Try it the next time you get behind the wheel of a car; the life you save might be mine.

I am proud to announce the release by Marriah Publishing of my second book, Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention.  in an eBook edition. This is all new material that cannot be found anywhere else. In light of all the talk and panic around gun violence, and the shamefully bad advice some “experts” are giving I hope some of you will read it and pass it along to your executives and HR leads (go ahead, expense it, they will be glad you did.)

It can be purchased in hardcover or paperback at Amazon or Barnes & Noble 

I should warn you, this isn’t a book that is pro- or anti-gun ownership rights.The book has extensive sections on spotting an unstable employee (some people’s lives will take a dark and desperate turn long after you have hired them but there are always signs), the types of work environments that tend to trigger these events, and I recently returned from Dublin, Ireland where I spoke on how companies can leverage technology to protect workers from workplace violence.  But all the books, and magazines, and speeches in the world won’t change a damned thing if you keep thinking that it can’t (or probably won’t) happen to you or someone you love. You can bet your life that we will see more similar shootings in the weeks or months as people who are currently at the brink of sanity see the news reports and think, “now’s the time”. WAKE UP, PEOPLE!!!! This book is peppered with the sarcasm, self-deprecating humor of the first book, but it also makes use of my extensive knowledge of violence prevention in the workforce (that I gained as head of training and OD for a global manufacturer.) You should buy it. Seriously I’m not telling you how to live your life but you should buy it. Okay I AM telling you how to live your life, just buy the damned book.

Of course, my first book is still for sale, and is ALSO available in the eBook format you might rightly ask yourself, why on God’s green Earth would I read a book that contains previously released material? Simple, like the rain-forest and the polar bears my work is disappearing from the web very quickly.  All but a handful of my works for Facility Management Magazine are gone, and you can basically only go back two years on my blog (eight year’s worth of my work that ranges in quality from magnificent to mindless dreck.) And besides, about a third of the book is new material that cannot be found anywhere else. So buy it. It will teach you, entertain you, and make you want to read more it can be ordered here I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes &

As always, Read. Learn. Live. Share. Inspire.


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