Risk and Safety as a Social Psychological Problem

Risk and Safety as a Social Psychological Problem

By Dr Rob Long

Image Source: HSE Myth Busters


When one reads through the many resources and programs about risk and safety one could be forgiven for thinking that safety compliance would be much easier if it didn’t involve people. I often get amused by approaches to risk and safety that spend most of their time focusing on objects, as if judgments around those objects are irrelevant. It is as if the object itself is value laden and dangerous.

I recently did some work for an organisation who asked for help in developing a more mature approach to observations and conversations about risk at work. I looked through the tools they were using to undertake risk and safety walks and everything on the checklist involved the observation of objects. Looking out for pinch points, sharp edges, heights, heat and slip hazards is of limited value if one can’t imagine or focus on how humans respond to each other and those objects in that environment. There is so little talk in the risk and safety world about imagination it is scary yet, imagination is the core attribute required to become ‘risk intelligent’. Similarly, the safety world talks very little about motivation but seems addicted to punishment. Why is there no subject in safety training programs on imagination and motivation?

Many objects can be made a risk by human decision making just as many objects that appear hazardous can be of low risk depending on judgment made in engaging that object. When it comes to understanding risk, an understanding of social psychology is essential. Social psychology studies the way social arrangements influence decisions and judgments.

Humans are social animals, there is really no such thing as an individual, we only attain our identity in relation to others. I am identified as a person in relation to others. As Martin Buber wrote, there is no I, only an I-Thou. I am identified as a son, father, husband, club member, employee and so on by my relationship to others. No person is an island.

Our social arrangements give us meaning, purpose and fulfilment. Social arrangements also determine the way we make decisions and judgments. Whilst it is wonderful to explore the engineering associated with objects, it is from a social psychological analysis that we understand why that object is a risk.

So, risk and safety is really not an engineering problem but a social psychological problem. An engineering approach to risk and safety tends to have its training and focus on objects. I don’t know of any engineering degrees with a major in social psychology. Whilst it is great to observe what engineers think and construct, it is not the core focus of that discipline to understand human organisation, collective mindfulness and its response to objects.

Similarly, the idea of ‘safety engineering’ also has its focus on objects. Most health and safety and risk management training has its focus on objects (regulation, legislation and systems are all artefacts of culture and objects). One can do a diploma in risk and safety and still not engage very much with the social psychology of risk.

So, regulators have a focus on regulation, legislators on legislation and systems, this all makes sense but all are limited in what they teach about humans and decision making. The social psychology of risk has its focus on how social arrangements influence decisions and judgments. The social psychology of risk helps understand the following questions:

· Why don’t humans obey rules?

· Why are people non-compliant?

· How is human perception limited?

· Why do people make poor judgments about risk?

· Why are people not motivated to safety?

· How is perception limited by collective mindlessness?

Without an understanding of the social psychology of risk, it becomes easy just to view people who take and fail at risk as being ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’. Once we have dismissed people in this way, we no longer have to understand the problem or the drivers of the problem, the label has taken away any need for further understanding. Without such a better understanding than orthodox approaches to risk and safety, we will simply advocate stronger vigilance of the same rather than anything new. We end up with more laws, more bureaucracy and more policing.

Rob’s paper on the Social Psychology of Risk can be downloaded here.


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