Updated: Mar 20
Risk Perception Is it a trunk or a tail or a rope?
In ancient India, the story goes that seven blind men, who had never before touched or seen an Elephant, took turns touching and describing an Elephant. One touched the trunk and thought it was a spear, another one touched the tail and thought it was a rope. Another blind man touched a leg and shouted "it's a tree!" and so on. The relevance of this with risk is the perception of risk.
During my past career first, as an airborne combat medic attached to the special forces and later on as a close protector in the Middle East I realised risk perception and risk appetite are very closely linked. There's another element to it and it is risk awareness. As a safety practitioner, this aspect of risk management for me personally remains one of the most elusive of them all, its called BUY-IN. In this second lesson of a series of five articles on Risk Management lessons, we can learn from elephants; I have again reached out to my friend Rodger Hollins, a Health and Safety Advisor from The Waikato, and asked him about it.
Rodger explores in the article below the roles of the business, the worker and health and safety professionals. How these influence overall safety performance. He also offers four tips to improve safety performance.
Rodger Explains; during a risk management workshop I facilitated a little while back with a group of learners, we spent some time in class working through an introduction to risk, sharing the idea that the hazard is the source of potential harm and that there are various risks associated with each hazard, that should be identified and understood, so that proportionate controls can be put into place to minimise the risk to health & safety, where the hazard could not be eliminated. It was all going well, with the class sharing examples of their workplace hazards, discussing reasonably foreseeable risks and then working through the hierarchy of controls as a group to manage them. The quiet person in the back of the room then raised their hand. The gentleman asked.
“Given that our discussion around risk seems to provide a very sensible approach to protect people against danger, could you please explain why, where I work, I am asked to survey a vacant piece of land with full PPE attire, expected to wear a hard hat, long sleeves, gloves, eye protection & safety boots?”
Well, I wasn’t sure what to say. I needed a little time to think, so I decided to throw the question back at the class to get their input, and I found some of the responses quite interesting. One person suggested it was because health & safety is getting out of control, and this was, in their view, a good example of “overboard and ridiculous”, another person intervened and laughed about how this was one way to keep the bosses out of jail, and the third person added that “this is what you get when the decision makers sit behind their PC in an air-conditioned office.’, but other than these remarks, no one within the class, including myself, could come up with a more constructive answer. I could justify some of the PPE through speculation, but to be fair, the answer should have come from the people or team that imposed the requirement. After the course, this experience got me thinking about a few things. Firstly, what are some of the factors that influence risk perception and secondly, what could be done to try and narrow the gap in perceptions?
The “blindness” in the seven blind men involved in this story.
Firstly, in relation to the analogy of the blind men and to “look at it from all sides”, I’d like to think about the perception of three different angles and what might cause them to only see a part of the elephant. What causes an underestimation or overestimation of risk? Why do some teams efficiently manage critical risks, and why are others still struggling with this?
To follow the “blind men” theme, I’d like to share thoughts on the business perspective, the worker's perspective, the H&S teams’ view, and the elephant represent critical risk. What are some of the reasons there is a tainted perspective from all three angles? Here are some thoughts:
I suppose the million-dollar question is. “Are we trying to help people go home safely at the end of the day or are we trying to stay out of a court room?” As always, I think that the answer is a bit of both, however even though we may have both goals in mind, which goal is communicated to people, not verbally, but through actions? If we could get unjudged honesty from managers and business owners like I received in my classroom that day, what would their predominant answer be? Might some of those who offered comment actually be managers or business owners already? I didn’t mentioned their role back then, did I? I have been fortunate enough in my short time in health & safety to meet a few people that offered such a degree of conviction in their comments and supported a concerted effort to “get things done right”, that I truly believed that they cared about their people and that legal obligations were a secondary responsibility to caring for their team. Not only did I believe him, but more importantly, most of the workers believed him. That team spent time understanding the work and the risks involved with it. They actively asked for input from others, both internally and externally, and they set a “tone” or loosely translated, a risk appetite, so that everyone on site understood the risk, and also understood the company’s approach to working in a healthy & safe way, with a “WHY” attached to it.
I have also, however, met a few managers that simply “go with the flow”. They offer an almost pre-recorded voice recording of “so we can all go home safely at the end of the day.” In my time, I have even been unfortunate enough to sit in a board room where the Chief Financial Officer of the business offered some feedback after their company had received a significant fine for a health & safety violation. It sounded something similar to this. “I really don’t care how much protective gear the workers need to wear from now on, but I suggest that they start wearing it soon as we cannot sustain fines like this in the future.” Now this comment sounds like mere frustration, and the fact that came from someone with a financial background, is irrelevant, but when such a thought is taken to heart by most of the other leaders sitting around the same table, and it is used as a motivator to create change, what rabbit hole does this lead us down, and how does this mindset keep the blinkers on, that narrow our view to only a portion of the elephant? Perhaps another significant challenge in this area is around clients’ health & safety expectations. Include the old adage that says “money talks”, and sometimes it is clear to see a range of businesses simply applying rules because their corporate clients expect it. An example of this is perhaps annual medical assessment of workers. Many businesses pay for their workers to undergo annual medical assessments at a pretty penny, merely for the sake of getting onto a site. This financial outlay is often wasted as the trigger is not supported by a foundation, whereas, if feedback from such assessments is used correctly, they could offer significant benefit within the health & safety management system framework and the determination of whether critical risks are being managed effectively or not, which is, with the analogy in mind yet again, perhaps an understanding of a larger portion of the elephant?
Now, the systematic downflow of contractor management does offer positive potential, however when the main contractor or influential company has limited experience in the application of meaningful health & safety and makes decisions based on other factors other than a good understanding of risk, what is the impact on the channels below, and how does this impact the team's ability to focus on critical risk, when they spend a lot of time, seemingly sweating the small stuff? I have no doubt that Health & Safety Laws have good intentions, however, at times, in the wrong hands, could it create an environment where H&S decisions are based on fear of prosecution as opposed to risk? To me, the classroom event was a learning experience as, even if full PPE was justified for that task, it was interesting to see how a lack of explanation or communication lead most workers and managers in the class to ignite a negative perception of a system that is there to help them go home at the end of the day, rather than to stand up for it and support it.
To be fair, workers also have a range of factors that can influence their perception as well. This can be quite a big list if you delve into the theory, however for simplicity, the following is offered for consideration. Whether it is differences in upbringing, different country of birth, different past experiences, different H&S climates from previous jobs, no experience of injury, personally or within in their team, pressure from various sources or biased systems that offer bigger rewards for meeting production deadlines and quality expectations, there are enough factors that can cause a worker to underestimate (or overestimate) risk.
There are one or two extras that I’d like to share as examples. The first one is the “abundance of work” for many small businesses or sole traders. Now, this is of course a good thing as the economy needs work, however, in a very particular set of circumstances, this potentially has an effect on the standard of health & safety and perhaps the willingness to see the bigger picture, not necessarily the ability to see the bigger picture. I worked with an organisation not too long ago, who has put some significant effort into its contractor management framework in the interest of improving communication and helping workers to see “the whole elephant”. The information offered is, in my view, well prepared and offers the prospective contractor a very clear outline of what is expected, and to a large degree, why it’s expected. Many may even consider this document as a solution to aligning perceptions, but why then does it in itself, pose a challenge? Well as you can imagine, if the document and aligning processes help “see the whole elephant”, then it might be quite lengthy. So, when this contractor was given the opportunity to “See the bigger picture”, instead of a “thank you for clarifying this for us”, their response was,
“look mate, I have a 3-month waiting list of clients that don’t ask for this level of H&S analysis, if you are going to expect this from us, then best you ask another contractor to help you, as I don’t have the time for this.”
Given the level of skill that this contractor had to offer, and the challenge behind getting work done in a reasonable time frame, the expectations and discussions were shortened, and the contractor was allowed to work, almost under their own terms. Could the current maturity level within health & safety in certain industries have a greater effect? What effect could the above approach have of people’s perception of critical risk?
My second example may be a little obscure, but I trust that you will join me in seeing the bigger picture? During the introduction phase of a supervisor course I facilitated a few years back, I thought that I would pose a simple question to stir conversation and to help everyone settle in. Being personally intrigued by team culture and the human behaviour component in health & safety, I asked if anyone in the class had recently thanked a worker for doing the job the right way. Now, the answers obviously differ from class to class, but it was not unusual to have no hands raised. Many that join in on courses often are part of teams that have heard of positive reinforcement in human behaviour but haven’t a lot of experience with it. But when no one raised their hand in the class this time, I thought that I would ask a quick second question. “When was the last time a worker was reprimanded for unsafe behaviour?” …and then I was surprised. Still, no one raised their hands.
For what it is worth, I support the group of people that prefer a positive approach to guidance, however, given that negative reinforcement is almost naturally instilled in most of us, why wasn’t even that approach being applied? This started a great discussion that served its cause, but after a while, we all realised that for many workers on site, there is very little effort to motivate an expected behaviour, other than to get the work done, and no matter how much effort we put into helping people understand critical risks, what difference would it make unless it is supported with some form of motivation? Could these two examples provided above offer insight into real-life factors that affect worker perception, willingness and ability to see “the whole elephant?” What perceptions do we cultivate of health & safety or critical risk when actively choosing to neither praise nor punish behaviour?
Health & Safety Team
This is where I conveniently include myself back into the conversation to keep myself out of trouble. I am conscious of the fact that my views are tainted by my own perception. Where I have worked in the past, who I have worked with, where I did my training and even how I did my training all form part of the many influences that have an impact on my views, or perception. To add to the discussion though, what are some of the factors that H&S teams are exposed to that influence perception of critical risk? Could they be similar to mine? Could the fact that they are paid by the organisation itself be a reason, supported by cultural beliefs that suggest that “raising concerns” means “biting the hand that feeds you”? Could a prevailing culture have an influence on the H&S practitioners’ values, for example, “production over safety” or the view that “workers need to simply do as they are told”, irrespective of how poorly thought out a rule is? Could external challenges be taking up a large portion of the H&S practitioners time, for example, how many H&S practitioners are flat out, working on COVID arrangements? Could sheer work overload be a factor that reduces the opportunity to delve deeper into a subject? Perhaps its one thing to be a Safety, Health, Environmental, Risk & Quality Manager that leads a team, but when a practitioner is in a small business with a similar title, and has an expected hands-on role in every area, how much focus and time is given to critical matters? This statement is definitely not a dig at senior health & safety leaders in large organisations, it is an acknowledgement that according to the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE), 97% of businesses in New Zealand are small businesses that employ 20 or less people, so this dynamic must surely have an impact, both on critical risks and perception? How big are the health & safety support teams in these businesses?
How do we get a better view of the whole elephant?
So, how dangerous is it to only see part of the elephant? How do some of the factors mentioned above, and others, have an impact on the messages that workers receive about working in a healthy & safe way and how does that affect their perception of critical risk and health & safety as a whole?
Ten years ago, I probably would have tried to give an answer, but I have learnt since then, that this is complex. I believe that there are so many variables and circumstances, that to me, it makes it impossible to give a short answer in an article, especially when I do not understand the particular team dynamics at play. I will therefore leave the expert advice to the experts. What I would like to do is simply share a thought or two. Something that may help you think about your circumstances and perhaps something that you could take away from this article to try.
Here are 4 points that you may choose to consider which could help improve the perception of critical risk within your team.
Ironically, even after my long-winded article, clarity is important. The message should be aimed at the target audience. Clarity is also linked to the previous article in this series, (Lesson 1: Identify the Risk – Don’t Miss the Elephant) as taking the time to truly understand hazards and risks at the required depth, helps provide clearer information, that could be communicated with workers, with a “why” attached to it. Clarity should not only be between a business and its workers, but also between businesses. What are the risks and why are they critical? Why should you join us in believing they are critical? And why do we as a business see them as critical, even if in the beginning, you may not believe us?
Yet again from so many different angles here. If larger companies have greater resources, how many of them are coaching the smaller businesses? Helping them to understand their views as opposed to merely informing and enforcing rules that are left for others to decipher whether they are important or not? Has the “they are a contractor” mentality blind-sighted organisations? Do companies spend as much time coaching and supporting their contractors as they do their employees? Should they? Maybe they don’t have to, maybe some still see this as the “luxury” of outsourcing, but what effect does this approach have on critical risk management?
Engagement, Participation & Proof of Investment
Are we asking workers for their views, opinion and input? To be honest, I’d like to go one step further. Can we show workers that their views, opinion and input is used to improve and grow health & safety systems for work? What might happen to engagement and participation levels in critical risk management when evidence of application is given back to workers on a regular basis, showing them that their input is used and that it matters? How many more people would believe that a risk is critical, when they were part of the process that helped understand it? How many people would encourage others to apply controls to manage critical risks if they were involved in identifying them? How many more people would feel comfortable to raise their hand and pause the work if the risk was too high, if they understood the expected approach? From an investment perspective, how much has been spent on managing critical risks? Do workers see this? It may be a financial investment for example, remind workers that a great deal of money is spent on controls for certain risks, perhaps this helps them equate the size of the risk? Surely if a company spends a lot of money on making something safer, it must be serious? It’s not only about money of course. Do workers see how much time is spent on planning work safely? Do they see how much time the company spends upskilling people to help manage certain risks? Do they see evidence that what they are learning during courses is being applied and appreciated?
To me, this is simple in theory, but very challenging to implement and maintain, so well done to those company’s out there who are getting this right, as there are more and more as time goes by. In my world, I believe that companies have the freedom to choose any method of approach that suits them, in any area of their business, including health & safety and I feel that it is irrelevant whether we all agree with a particular approach or not. Perhaps this is why some people choose to work for some companies and others don’t, but we are all different and there is no “silver bullet”. What does cause an interesting challenge though, is when teams say one thing and do another. When critical risks are critical…most of the time, some of the time, or mainly when things are going well. Continual improvement comes to mind as another example as many businesses strive for “continual improvement”, which is a positive part of a health & safety management system and is even part of some international standards. However, is it continual improvement or continuous improvement? Is there a strategy to continually improve and grow in the area of critical risk or do the rules change so often, with new ideas and controls popping-up so frequently, that people struggle to keep up with expectations? Linked with clarity above, if actions to manage critical risks are understood and consistent, are people more likely to get involved and stay involved? How long would you keep playing a game of football if every time you tried to score a goal, the goalposts moved?
In closing, a limited view to only one portion of risk can create variances in risk perception which can have a significant impact on your health & safety system and your ability to care for workers. This article tried to provide a little insight, and personal experiences perhaps, of three common perspectives in the working world, the business, the workers, and the H&S practitioners. It highlighted the importance of obtaining good information about the hazard, simplifying it, and segregating it from the day-to-day clutter so that it can help teams see the stuff that really matters. Getting professional support to help understanding your team and how they perceive risk can be beneficial as it may allow your business to create systems and processes that are based around people and not necessarily the other way around. And lastly, visible evidence of investment is a practical way to remind workers of the dangers that they face as well as the meaningful and proportionate efforts that are in place to deal with them, which they are then encouraged to support.
As always, I’d be very keen to hear of your approach, experiences and advice around critical risk perception and how you and your team maintain focus in this area.
1 Person Conduction a Business or Undertaking.
The Safety Improvement Group Blog refers to the role of the organisation, people and safety professionals as The Safety Improvement Group Health & Safety Management System. This article does not intend to explain the system itself in micro detail but rather to explore some of the elements needed to achieve good health and safety in any organisation and is available for free download here.