Risk management. The human factor.

de Decebal Leonard Marin

The mere existence of dedicated legislation, standards and management systems does not ensure a safe working environment.

The efficiency with which the Safety activity is managed is mainly conditioned by the inclusion of the human factor involved, more precisely by the understanding of the way in which people perceive, judge and make decisions related to the management of danger and risk.

The danger is defined as the object or situation with the potential to injure people or cause harm. The risk is the likelihood of injury or illness as a result of exposure to an existing hazard. In our culture, this probability is translated into uncertainty and, like any uncertainty, is subjective and little explored.

In the safety industry, risk management is seen as a mechanical process, laden with calculations and indicators. The most well-known and widely used approaches: Hierarchy of controls, The Risk Management Process Model, The Risk Matrix, Injury Ratio Pyramid, Reasons’s Swiss Cheese Model focus on system, process and objectives, and less on the human side.

The most popular concepts take too little or no account of how people end up making decisions and behaving when facing hazard. This lack of understanding limits the effectiveness of accident prevention and often leads to one of the strangest and most frustrating conclusions in the investigation of the causes of accidents: the well-known verdict “human error”.

We often hear remarks like, “Rest assured, nothing will happen,” “nothing has ever happened,” “no danger,” “I know better.” or “it’s very dangerous,” “it’s too risky,” “I don’t think it’s right to do that.”

The fact that we humans do not all have the same Risk Intelligence Quotient, makes us perceive and behave differently when dealing with hazard.

At the individual level, the perception of risk is influenced by factors that are found in three levels: psychological, physical and cultural.

If you want to help people avoid the risks that can lead to accidents, it is helpful to understand what is on each of these plans:

1. PSYCHOLOGICAL | how they think – perceptions, emotions and beliefs, thought patterns, heuristics and intuitions, habits, past experiences, etc.

2. PHYSICAL | workplace organization – process design, organization, workplace ergonomics, administrative control measures, engineering, etc.

3. CULTURAL | organizational culture – common values, relationships, social validation, recognition and punishment, language, discourse and signage, collective habits, stories, heroes of the organization, etc.

In order to motivate and involve people in accident prevention and increasing safety at work, interventions are needed that address all these behavioural triggers, as well as the relationships between them.

Safety is a continuous journey, in which in order to have reasonable results, we must move our attention from the administrative-bureaucratic area to the human factor area. I say reasonable results, because a total control leading to “zero accidents” is not possible.

Risk management requires not only specific knowledge and effective management of systems and rules, but also critical thinking, knowledge of social psychology, change management, empathy, and leadership skills.

The good news is that if we as consultants team up with top management and safety specialists, we can succeed together.