Occupational Hygiene Posts

The risk assessment trap: Are risk assessments encouraging unsafe behaviours?

SHP Article 12 Aug 2020

Are risk assessments encouraging unsafe behaviours? Tony Roscoe, Head of Consulting Services at Anker & Marsh, looks at human behaviour and whether people take greater risks because a risk assessment has been completed.

Working with SHE professionals, almost daily I meet people who are frustrated with other people’s behaviour, especially when it comes to safety. They feel that they have done everything to keep people safe and that ‘they’ won’t follow basic instructions and stop taking risks.

There are many reasons that people take risk at work, I want to explore one that is not often discussed.

The idea for this article came from a recent discussion on LinkedIn about risk and risk assessment. As with many things in safety, risk assessment is a logical process that is then applied by less than completely logical people.

Are risk assessments encouraging unsafe behaviours?

One of the ways in which risk assessments break down is when it comes to human behaviour and people taking greater risks because a risk assessment has been completed.

This sounds like an oxymoron. People take more risks because we’ve done risk assessments!

Yes, unfortunately this is true. The answer isn’t to not do risk assessments, but to understand why they are taking the risk.

Many years ago, I remember watching an episode of CSI Las Vegas, which involved a car crash and as this show tended to do, they wove some science into the storyline. In this case the science was The Peltzman Effect. This made me curious and I started to look into it, to understand its implications for safety.

The Peltzman Effect is a theory which states that people are more likely to engage in risky behaviour when security measures have been mandated.

Sam Peltzman is an economist who noted that the more safety that was mandated in cars e.g. mandatory seat belts, the more unsafe behaviours people performed in cars.

So, in effect, the safer we make people feel, the more risk that they take.

Safety culture

This is the conundrum I see every day in safety. It is at the core of the frustration of pretty much every SHE person I have ever met.

We take a person and make them feel invincible by covering them head to toe in PPE and giving them a mountain of paperwork, and their response is to take greater risks. In effect, the risk assessment has made it a little more likely that people will take a risk.

How do we overcome this?

Much of this, as with most things, comes down to culture.

The key word in the definition is ‘mandated’. This is where safety is seen as something that is done to people, something that they have little or no control over.

It is no surprise then that organisations with mature cultures based on communication, servant leadership and continual improvement have excellent safety records, because safety is not seen as being done ‘to’ people, but ‘with’ people.

Whilst we continue to do safety to people, then the harder we work as SHE professionals, the more risk that they take, and around and around we go.


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