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RISK PERCEPTION – Why We Take Chances

Paul Meli

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Paul Meli | April 8, 2014 | Comments Off on RISK PERCEPTION – Why We Take Chances

Safety Training for Construction WorkersThe below post is in continuity on the topic of ” Risk Perception”, click the link below to read Part 1.

Continuing my conversation on “Risk Perception”, this discussion will focus upon a very important aspect of risk management, which is behavior management.  As I mentioned in my last blog, one of two external factors that can and usually affects our behavior are:

1) environmental influences (the workplace), and

2) habit-forming activities (work or home).  Both of these elements contribute to the development of risky activities and if not addressed early enough they will become our finger print.

In behavioral sciences, a theory known as the “Broken Window Theory” (James Wilson and George Kelling) looks at behaviors and perceptions of people in urban settings where homes/buildings have broken windows. The broken windows for many suggests that those living in such neighborhoods are unconcerned, disordered, and likely unlawful; the effect that this attitude has on others results in further destruction of windows propagating more delinquent behavior. A pattern of delinquency and crime is inescapable.

If we substitute broken windows for a broken risk control or injury prevention program, we can see a correlation.  Allowing unsafe behaviors encourages unacceptable work practices that inevitably results in injuries.  While the injuries at first may be minor, if not effectively dealt with the worker will undoubtedly continue the unsafe activity.  A significant injury or loss is probable given a work environment where safe work practices are not endorsed or supported. Prompt correction of risky behaviors will demonstrate to others the importance of safe work practices and deter future infractions. We should never overlook small violations of operational performance because if we do, the small unsafe act can manifest into larger risk problems.

As I mentioned in previous posts, unsafe behaviors can spread very quickly.  I call the effects of tacit allowance of unsafe behaviors the “workplace contagion effect”.  Workers see others performing unsafely and because they get away with it and suffer no negative consequences others will begin to follow along – it starts to spread like a virus from person to person.  Even when someone is injured, other workers continue their activities in a careless manner believing foolishly that such an outcome cannot befall them or perhaps are too afraid to say something about it.  This contagion continues and now we have an epidemic – the entire workforce is infected and the risk perception is changed.  Can you see the broken windows?

To control the spread of unsafe behaviors in a contagious environment, we first need to stop using the seat-of-the-pants approach.  Meaning, we react to risk more than we plan to control it in a proactive way.  An example of this approach is when an accident occurs. Predictably, we want to throw everything at the problem to try to prevent it from happening again.  Unfortunately, the accident has occurred and that outcome cannot be changed.  Some of us use analytics to fix the problem – trends are charted, or assessments are conducted, and in certain instances work is halted and a ‘stand-down” is ordered, or a full day’s refresher to help contain this contagion is implemented. Although there may be some benefit by doing these things, this tactic is not very effective in the long term.  Moreover, it may waste time as the conclusions derived from simply evaluating raw data or the unsafe act itself are far from accurate links to causation.

As I mentioned in earlier blogs, risk models fill the spectrum with ways we can recalibrate risk back to normal acceptable levels, well behind the safe-work / smart-work risk boundary line.  The best way to control risk is to,

1) generate a consistent approach to risk management;

2) set clear and unambiguous expectations; and

3) proactively conduct frequent training programs to reinforce risk controls.  Let’s fix the broken windows.

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