Frontline Fundamentals: Risk Tolerance

A fundamental premise of working safely is that hazards must be identified and then controlled. Too many incidents occur because hazards are not identified, or worse, they are identified but ignored or tolerated.

One of my favorite ways to introduce the concept of risk tolerance is to ask a Frontline class this simple question: “What are some things you might hear someone say before something really bad happens?” It always amazes me – and scares me – how open participants are when I ask this question. Typical responses I have heard include:
• “We’ve done this a thousand times and no one has ever gotten hurt.”
• “We’ve always done it this way.”
• “This is going to hurt.”
• “If this works, we’ll be heroes.”
• “I think it will hold.”
• “I can survive anything for two minutes.”
• “What’s the worst that could happen?”
• “Here goes nothing.”

That list could go on for a long time, and it gives us a lot of insight into how we think about hazards and risk. In fact, I want to be sure to mention one incredibly memorable response not listed above that led to some great discussion about risk tolerance: “Hold my beer and watch this.”

Take a moment to remember if you have ever made that statement or heard someone else make it. What followed? I have heard stories involving “testing” an underground dog fence, in which someone held the shock collar in his hand and ran through the fence; jumping off a roof into a swimming pool; attempting to bench-press 400 pounds; boxing a kangaroo; and a myriad of other superhuman feats fueled by alcohol. Oddly enough, sober people do not think it is cool or that it will impress someone if they, for instance, eat a spoonful of cinnamon.

A Big Challenge
A big challenge to working safely is that some people don’t just accept or tolerate risk – they enjoy it. They conquer a risk and then tell stories about how they overcame it. We even create reality TV shows about risk tolerance. If you don’t think people like risk, consider that the odds of winning the lottery are one in 292 million and 30 million tickets are sold each week. Or that there are sharks in the ocean and that is where we go to play.

The good news is this sort of logic and decision-making only happen at home and we magically become responsible, sober, sane people who make good decisions when we’re at work. Wrong. Instead, risk tolerance begins to look like not wearing PPE because of overconfidence; assuming a line truck or forklift can pick up a load without verifying; skipping steps in a switching procedure; working in an unprotected trench because the work is only going to take a minute; or performing maintenance without lockout and tagout. A seat belt becomes a nuisance rather than a life-saving device. Machine guards get removed because they are in the way. Safety tools like job observations and pre-job briefings get pencil whipped or skipped because they take too much time.

To make matters worse, sometimes we are rewarded for risk tolerance. We take off our rubber gloves and find we aren’t as hot and have more dexterity. It’s faster to climb a pole without 100 percent fall protection. We pencil whip a pre-job briefing and do not discuss it with our crew, and then our supervisor visits the job site and congratulates the foreman because he did a good job with the briefing. There also can be a lack of negative consequences and consequential errors. For example, we can text and drive and not get a ticket or be involved in an accident. Part of managing risk tolerance is making an accurate assessment of all the consequences and potential consequences of our actions.

Furthermore, risk tolerance can happen with the best of intentions. I once heard a story about a worker who broke his leg on the job when he was struck by a backhoe. His task at the time was to walk in front of the backhoe and hold back bushes to keep them out of the backhoe’s travel path so they would not be damaged. Most people would view standing that close to a backhoe as a risk not worth taking. In planning this job and focusing on an irate property owner who did not want his bushes damaged, the worker tolerated the risk and broke his leg. In essence, the work plan valued a bush more than a leg, and no one realized it was happening until it was too late.

Be aware of your risk tolerance and how you can become a hazard to yourself and others. Risk tolerance factors include selective attention, inattentional blindness, detrimental attitudes, biases, mental strain and normalization of deviance (risk drift). Learn what these factors are and be able to identify them as they occur. In doing so, you can eliminate or reduce your risk tolerance and accurately identify hazards that can then be mitigated using the hierarchy of controls.

About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CET, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute (www.ip-institute.com). His experience includes operations management, safety and training roles. McPeak holds multiple safety and training certifications and has received numerous awards. He also has served as chairman of Task Team One of the OSHA ET&D Partnership, as a member of Incident Prevention’s editorial advisory board and as a member of the North Carolina Apprenticeship Council. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About Frontline: The Frontline program provides interactive, engaging classroom training that empowers employees to become better utility safety leaders. Subject matter experts facilitate the learning process and cover four areas – safety leadership, incident prevention, human performance, and standards and operations – critical to safety success. Visit www.frontlineutilityleader.com for more information.

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Risk Tolerance Webinar
May 17 at 3 p.m. Eastern
Visit www.frontlineutilityleader.com for more information.

 

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