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Having the right perception of risk

  • 21 March 2016 - 15:02

    It doesn’t matter what health and safety publication you read, the types of serious and fatal accidents that continuously occur in this country rarely change. Falls from height, contact with moving machinery and the health effects of asbestos and silica are nothing new but they still go on. Thankfully, it is very rare that people intentionally go to work to get seriously injured or killed, but this still happens.

    More often than not the ‘cause’ of an incident can be related back to a company’s failure to provide competent staff or introduce a safe system of work.

    However, there are also situations that arise due to poor decision-making on an individual or group basis.

    Making the right decision

    Research of accidents and incidents shows that there is a consistent trend within the underlying causes and they are usually one of the following:

    • Actions of people
    • Equipment failure
    • Poor systems and procedures

    By far the biggest cause is people; in fact 96–100% of accidents can be traced back to unsafe acts and behaviour. Equipment is only really a cause if a person operates it incorrectly or doesn’t inspect or maintain it. Systems and procedures fail because a person wrote them incorrectly or someone failed to follow them properly.

    In the 200+ accident investigations I have undertaken throughout my career there have been only a couple of occasions where there was no evidence of any training, significantly poor equipment, or a total lack of systems and procedures in place. There is usually something to some standard in place. The factors that are nearly always involved are lack of management control or poor supervision, a flawed risk assessment and poor-decision making.

    The vast majority of my investigation findings confirmed that there was little else that the company could do procedurally in order for this incident not to happen again. However, there was plenty that employees at all levels within the organization could have done to stop the incident occurring. And herein lies the problem.

    Most accident reports focus on the procedural improvement. Management believe that getting the system right will change everything. The system probably was ‘there or thereabouts’, but were were the people?

    Why have individuals made the decisions which have resulted in them or someone else suffering an injury?

    Often it is down to a person’s perception that something is safe when in actual fact it isn’t.

    Because of this, it is so important that employees are comfortable to work outside the confines of close supervision, are confident to assess the risk of activities themselves and make the right calls.

    Risk perception

    I spend a lot of time in businesses with managers and supervisors (usually carrying out site visits) where we will be walking alongside each other when something unsafe catches my eye and I stop. The person I’m with continues to walk and is a little unsure why I have asked them a question on a task their employees are undertaking and why they appear to be doing it in an unsafe manner.

    Have they received a good level of health and safety training? Often yes. Are they aware of their duties and responsibilities? Yes, but they could be a bit clearer. Are they just ignorant and don’t want the hassle? Very unlikely.

    The reason they continued to walk past the unsafe behaviour is down to their perception of risk. Often not seeing the obvious risk. This is something they work with every single day and don’t perceive as being an issue.

    It could be said that they are conditioned to the workplace. They are so familiar with the environment that they have become subconsciously complacent. They have become desensitised and sometimes miss the obvious.

    This is a concern.

    I then make my way over the operatives who are performing an unsafe task. Sometimes they see me coming and reposition themselves; they may put on PPE or fit isolator locks. However, on many occasions they just carry on and are totally unaware of the risks and consequences of what they are doing.

    When the operatives and I are discussing my concerns, they look a little confused and don’t actually perceive the task they were performing is unsafe.

    This is also a concern.

    It can be difficult task trying to educate people who have been working in such a way for many years and don’t actually perceive that they sometimes take unnecessary risks.

    This lack of awareness may come from the fact that they have got away with it before or have never been challenged. It could also be due to the fact that every day of every week they intentionally take risks. They drive above the speed limit, cross roads away from zebra crossings, or take calls on mobile phones whilst driving. They do this because they think it will in some way improve their lives, it will give them a better return. Humans are risk takers…

    So it’s hardly surprising that people also take risks in the workplace. Good-man syndrome, doing the best for the business, keeping production going, putting profit ahead of safety are all intentional risks that improve the perception of an individual’s return. 

    We also subconsciously take risks; we eat poorly, we drink, we smoke. We need to ensure that those intentional risks do not become subconscious decisions and this will only be prevented if managers challeng them.

    We continually strive to better ourselves and we continually make decisions that have an impact on our future. Sometimes these decisions can have a bigger effect than we initially realized. It is when we make the decisions without knowing all the facts that we often get it wrong. So when people undertake tasks without considering all the risks they too can get it wrong, and it is then that they pay a price.

    You will never change a person’s opinion if you purely try and invoke your opinion on them. You will only change their opinion if you challenge them to think for themselves; if you encourage them to look at a situation and they themselves see the possible consequences of their actions or lack of thought.

    I recently read the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s autobiography, ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’. In it he spoke about NASA’s approach to risk assessment. They ask their people to ‘visualize failure’. Really think about what could go wrong and what it would mean to them. I think this is a really sensible approach to any assessment of risk.

    When we deliver training courses across the UK we always ask delegates: ‘Why do accidents happen?’ We usually get the following responses:

    • Rushing;
    • Incompetence;
    • Complacency;
    • Taking short cuts/laziness;
    • Not clear on what to do;
    • Pressure to get the job done;
    • Poor weather conditions.

    Obviously, this list does not cover every eventuality, but can you see a trend? All of these items are in the employee’s control; yes, even the weather. If the weather is that poor that they can’t work at height, then don’t do it…

    When people make decisions at work, who are they thinking about? Hopefully they are thinking about themselves and the people around them. But who are the most important people in their lives? By challenging people’s behaviour we want people to think about their loved ones, their family and the people they could leave behind if they get it wrong.

    You have to make decisions every single day you are at work. Take the right option; think about yourself and the team that are working around you. Think about your loved ones and how they will cope if you are not there. Take control of your workplace and stop if you feel at risk.

    Influential Management Ltd

    We are a health and safety consultancy that specializes in behavioural safety. With more than 20 years experience in a wide range of industries in the UK and Europe, we are able to provide advice and support on the following topics:

    • Modular health and safety training programmes;
    • Behavioural safety programmes;
    • All types of auditing (compliance and behavioural);
    • Policy and procedure preparation;
    • Accident investigation and report writing;
    • Preparation of risk assessments;
    • Act as a company’s competent person; and
    • Much more consultancy work.

    Newgates Centre
    Newgates
    Stamford
    PE9 1PG

    Colin Nottage
    Mob: 07799 656303


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