In short, yes, I think we do. But before we get into that, I am interested in how you reacted to that question. Did you think: Yeah, of course I do, doesn’t everyone? I guess so. No way, I would never accept different risks? You see, while I think that we don’t necessarily see it all the time, how you answer a question like that has a lot of implications for the way we not only live our lives, but importantly for the way we deal with workplace safety issues.
SAFETY VERSUS RISK
It can be really easy to talk about safety in terms of its binary outcomes – harm or no harm. It’s easy to measure and easy to describe. It’s understandable to everyone (did you get hurt on not?). The problem with this is that it can hide what’s really going on, and that is why, within safety, we typically talk about risk. It’s why the majority of organisations (and regulators) use the language of risk.
So while legislation and numerous company policies use the word safety (because that is the outcome), they all address the management of risk as the path to get there. Of course, the problem with that is that risk is about uncertainty. Risk is about multiple factors interacting in a sometimes very complicated way. Risk is harder to measure and describe. Risk is not understandable by everyone, although ironically everyone lives with risk and takes risks. Risk is hard to manage and control, and its made even harder when we can’t even be honest with how we deal with, and accept, risk on a personal level.
Lets think about the risks involved in the following activities:
Sports, like rugby, dancing, boxing, fishing, or motor racing
Work, like security, banking, home-making, defence, teaching, mining, or truck driving
Recreational activities, like going to a live music concert, hiking, sailing, or caravanning.
Do these activities have the same risk factors? Do they have different underlying risk levels or potentials? Would you say that some of these are higher risk than others? Are there some of these that you wouldn’t do, yet some that you would? Are there some that you have done, but wouldn’t now because you think they are too risky? Are you amazed that some people willingly do these, or do some people express amazement that you do them?
BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN I ACCEPT DIFFERENT STANDARDS RIGHT?
The key to this is in the way you perceive risk. I suppose it could be possible that some people participate in life without really considering risk.
That is, without ever considering what could happen or the chance of it happening and how those factors differ at different times. But I think that would be rare.
Again, the language we use gives this away. We all love comparing the risks of flying to driving, particularly when talking to someone afraid of flying. Many love watching contact sports, but would recoil at the thought of participating (especially sports like cage fighting). Some people love the idea of hiking in remote areas, alone for days, yet we would never allow that in the workplace (and in fact have legislation that says you would have to manage that risk in a workplace).
ONCE AGAIN, SO WHAT?
The risk (sorry, I couldn’t resist throwing that in) is that we end up treating risk as a single flavour or colour. That we pretend to treat all risks the same. We lie to ourselves and others because we don’t think we are allowed to admit we take risks, and that we might choose to do risky things because we like them, and yet that is exactly what we do.
We constantly make risk decisions, and those decisions vary depending on whether we are at work, rest or play (to borrow from the old Mars Bar ads). I hear many people talk about how they do things on the weekend they wouldn’t be able to get away with at work. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m saying we need to embrace the language of risk, and be honest about it. Embracing risk, including the language of risk (uncertainty, change, variation etc.) allows a more open discussion about what’s really going on than focusing on “be safe and don’t get hurt”.
Risk is not vanilla, it’s more like that rainbow bubblegum flavour. Interestingly, that’s the one that attracts the kids, and yet it’s the one adults think they are too old to try. I suspect that the kids are onto something you know. It’s hard to learn about variety and chance and change and uncertainty when you only eat vanilla. Why not try some rainbow bubblegum next time.
Safety Dave Whitefield
BASELINE TRAINING & CONSULTING
“The risk is that we end up treating risk as a single flavour or colour. That we pretend to treat all risks the same.”