Risk perception is as personal as your individual fingerprint – unique to only you. However, unlike our uniquely special fingerprint, our risk perception is formulated, molded, reshaped, and evolves over time. There are key periods in our lives when our risk perception changes and for the most part that change is caused by external influences and by habit-forming activities. How this evolution occurs is a factor of how far we move the risk boundary line. Each one of us will push the risk boundary further and further until we have pushed it so far it pushes back. I call that point in time “the absolute risk boundary”. At that point or boundary, we either know we cannot go any further or we will get hurt, or we just get hurt and realize we went too far.
The way it works is so simple we do not realize how often we pass over the boundary line or nudge it ever so slightly every minute of every day. When we continue to move that boundary further away, we change our perception of risk. When we start in life, we have a strong sense of uncertainty so we proceed cautiously. We know innately that the consequences of certain, specific actions will yield terrifying results. Therefore, we stop, albeit temporary so we can figure out a way to do it a bit less risky but still risky nonetheless. These responses or actions will continue until we start to push the risk boundary line further away and the more we move this line, the more difficult it is to move it back. For most of our lives, the anticipated consequences drive us away from that boundary line and keep us well back. Then we see someone else do something that allows us to feel we can do it too, so we do it. This is the beginning of our push to keep moving that boundary line further away.
As we mature, whether in life or at work, our experiences change and we can grow more confident with “getting away’ with risky behaviors. These experiences cloud our risk tolerance that build these levels of false confidence. The greater the level of confidence the further we want to move along and through that risk boundary.
How often do we see risk boundaries being moved is a function of a few factors. 1) The frequency of observations, 2) the tacit allowance of risky behaviors, 3) the frequency of training, and 4) the level of false confidence developed.
Breaking these elements down we will see that the more observations we make the greater the impact it will make in controlling risk. I call it being “visible”. It is very difficult to provide any level of support from behind the office desk. The workforce is facing risk every minute of every day and it is important for the safety professional to “see” what is going on so they can help guide them down the right path. These actions should not be seen as an enforcer action – you know the one that comes to the work area and starts to look for someone to accuse of doing it wrong so they can hand out fines and penalties. Observations should be used to “assess” the workforce and determine if and where risk gaps exist. Closing those gaps through support, guidance, training, and teaching, is a better way to adjust risky habits.
To control risky behaviors one of the first steps is to control the message we want to deliver. How frustrating and confusing is our message when we send mixed signals. An example is the classic “do as I say, not as I do” signal. In addition, when we see a risky habit and not address it, we become the approver of that risk activity whether we know it or not. Each time we walk by and say nothing to fix, correct, or change risky habits we are telling our workforce that it’s okay to do something wrong as long as you don’t get hurt. Confusing messages lead to frustrated safety professionals and workers.
Risk models fill the spectrum with ways we can recalibrate risk back to normal acceptable levels, well behind the risk, safe-work / smart-work boundary line. I can say with certainty that it is easier to create an immoveable risk boundary line up front, than it is to change it after someone has crossed over that line. There needs to be a mindset that – generate a consistent approach to risk management; set clear and unambiguous expectations; provide frequent training programs to reinforce risk controls; above all else, do not allow for the crossing of that risk boundary line.