Risk is About People, not just Objects

Originally posted on June 11, 2015 @ 6:50 AM

Risk is About People, not just Objects

Article by Robert Sams republished following a request from a reader – See all of his brilliant articles here

Team of climbers on the summit.The focus of so much of our attention today in health and safety is on ‘risk assessment’. Walk into any workplace and talk about health and safety and it is likely that someone will pull out a JSA, a SWMS, a JSEA or some other similar document that people will invariably refer to as their ‘risk assessment’.

‘Risk assessment’ is a daily routine for many health and safety professionals. We lead risk assessment teams, write up risk assessment processes, ‘teach’ people how to do risk assessments or report on the outcomes of risk assessments. As I have written about previously (https://safetyrisk.net/i-wish-i-had-thought-of-that/), ‘Risk assessment’ is also a cornerstone of modern health and safety legislation in Australia, it is enshrined in so much of what we do in health and safety.

But I wonder if our approach to ‘risk assessment’ works? There have been times in the past where our approach to ‘risk assessment’ in health and safety has troubled me, and I wonder if other health and safety professionals have felt the same?

For example, I remember working manufacturing and having well established and detailed processes in place for commissioning new equipment. We considered hazards and risks at all different stages; during plant design, manufacture, install, commissioning, and we continued to consider ‘risk’ as equipment became operational. We used checklists to help remind us of all sorts of hazards and risks; machine guarding, electrical and chemical (for cleaning), plus many others. Of course we did all this while consulting with our team.

This process seemed textbook perfect at the time, and compliant with Regulator guidelines. So why did I feel troubled? What was it about the process that caused such dissonance?

It has only recently become clear that the main cause for my concern was that we considered risk primarily in an objective way. That is, we were concerned with risks associated with objects; plant, equipment and the like. Sure, we had columns in our checklist that looks at ‘human factors’, things like fatigue, heat stress and anthropometric data, but we had no appreciation about the subjectivity of risk. I could pick a hole where a guard need to go without a problem, what I couldn’t pick though was; who, when and why a person may put their hand in that hole. That’s what caused most of my dissonance.

To really understand how this ‘object’ could cause an injury, requires us to understand how people make decisions and judgements about risk, and about how people feel about the risk including their own experiences and values. I’ve learnt that risk is not, and can’t be only objective, risk must be considered in the context of the environment and social setting in which it appears.

‘Risk Assessment’ can’t be as simple as choosing a likelihood and consequence from a risk matrix. How can this be valid when we don’t all share the same thoughts, experiences, values and importantly feelings about risk?

This reminds me of a recent conversation I had with an experienced health and safety professional (“John”) who did not agree with me about this point. John was adamant that ‘risk assessment’ is a valid scientific process. He told me, “consequence is usually pretty obvious, and you can either cut your arm off or not.” He went on to say “Likelihood on the other hand is a little more difficult. Likelihood is a little more subjective, but the key to overcoming this is to make sure that the group work together and come to ‘consensus’.” I asked him how he did this, and he gave some great examples of how he helps teams work together and no matter how long it takes, they eventually come to an agreement about the likelihood. He told me his organisation strongly supported safety and as part of their commitment, if teams needed extra time to complete a risk assessment, i.e. come to a ‘consensus’, then that was ok.

This conversation is typical of many discussions I have with health and safety professionals. For so long we have considered safety and the assessment of risk as a science. The problem with this approach is that it does not consider how humans make decisions about risk. This requires an understanding of key social psychological factors, two of which are:

‘Group Think’ (You Tube video – Group Think) the approach that John takes when a conducting risk assessment, in terms of consensus, is not wrong. In fact, if you read through most health and safety textbooks and literature published on the Safe Work Australia website (Safe Work Australia Material) it encourages this approach. Consultation with all ‘workers’ is a key focus of legislation. Most health and safety literature and training however does not consider ‘group think’. Have you ever considered this when you have been part of a risk assessment team? When we consider ‘group think’ we know that the ‘consensus’ of the group is not likely to be a ‘consensus’ at all. As stated in the video, “social penalties dished out to those that disagree by confirming perpetuate majorities that may not really exist”. Have you been part of a risk assessment when people just conformed in order to get things done?

‘Sunk Cost’ (Dave McRaney Website) – John also told me that it was important to make sure the right people are on the team. You need to bring together engineers, operators, cleaners and anyone else who will be involved in the task. Once all of these people agree on the risk score, then we know we have done a thorough job. What John didn’t know was the effect that ‘sunk cost’ would have on some of the individuals in the group. As David McRaney explains so well on his website; “The Misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments and experiences. The Truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.” Do you have ‘sunk cost’ as one of the items on your risk assessment checklist?

In a world that is crying out for simple answers and solutions (did someone say three word slogans…) to often complicated and even unsolvable problems, it takes a brave person to contest the current paradigm in risk assessment. The challenge for health and safety professionals is to consider whether their current processes for risk assessment are focused mainly on objects, and if they are, is this the most effective way to deal with risk?


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