In the first edition of Digging Deeper I explored my own near fatal cycling accident, and the thoughts that went through my mind as I spent over a month lying around in a hospital bed, that was almost three years ago now – and the reflections continue. My contribution in the last edition hinted at the concept of what has become known as “risk tolerance”.
So allow me to begin to explore risk tolerance with you, whilst using the same metaphor of cycling.
What is the risk associated with riding a bicycle, responsibly, to school? I am going to suggest to you that an accident is probably somewhere around “unlikely”. Some might say “rare”, given the number of kids riding to school each day etc. That’s one of the problems with applying a quasistatistical measure to this sort of exercise anyway. For the sake of the argument let us accept the “unlikely” position. Now let’s have a look at the consequences. Someone on the left hand side of the road getting “sideswiped” by a car is probably going to, at the very least, get some bark knocked off. It is not beyond the realm of possibility at all, that they may experience multiple fractures, or worse. So when we drop these on the standard (though highly ineffective) risk matrix we find a medium or high result. Depending on your personal or organisational view, there shall be responses to these results, I hope.
So now I am going to move our bicycle out across in front of the traffic. What we are doing is now placing ourselves amongst the traffic flow – in safety parlance don’t we call this “line of fire”? So let us again consider the same questions. As we increase the level of exposure to the vehicles, it would be fair to suggest that we are also increasing the likelihood of something happening. So if our previous rating here was “unlikely”, we have to at least up the ante to “possible”. Now if the event actually occurs, and we are now amongst traffic, the consequences too we would think are going to have to ramp up a bit. We are now almost certain to experience multiple fractures or death. I am hoping that most of us would consider this to be in the severe category on our risk matrix. We are now looking at “possible” and “severe”, which gives us an extreme risk. It is when we get up here we stop a process, because the risk is unacceptable, don’t we? The process then is to integrate some sort of mitigation process. Now here’s the rub people! Almost every road cyclist I know, including obviously myself, performs that manoeuvre a number of times on every ride we take. Why…when the possible outcome is so dire?
This leads me to having to further deconstruct these events. In other words we must develop some understandings of why people who would generally consider themselves to responsible and safety aware (many people would have described me as over-safe – I know because I have asked) can still find themselves placing themselves at significant risk. To a large degree this can be slated home to this condition I have identified as risk tolerance. So, firstly we need to have a peek at what is actually is? Now here we may be in for a bit of a surprise. Just try doing a phrase search on Google for “risk tolerance”. You might be somewhat shocked to see that it’s not about safety at all. We hit around three and a half million pages, and they are largely concerned with the world of high finance. That, in itself, should be sending a shiver down the back of the neck. We can all see how well those guys apply the tenets of risk to their world. All of our communities, particularly our workplaces, as well as our personal superannuation, have bled heavily over the previous several years. Now if we factor into the Google search OH&S as well…oh boy…do things shrink. About 2000 – In the Google world that is a “nonsense”.
Anyway the idea of “risk tolerance” is roughly about how much uncertainly an investor can handle. There are a whole lot of factors that feed into that scenario and I suggest you hit Google if you want to explore that a little further.
I want us to spend some time though considering this issue of “risk tolerance” from a personal safety perspective. My cycling example demonstrates, only too painfully, the outcomes that can occur, through by becoming too tolerant of the risks around us. As I have said, those of us in the cycling community tolerate this risk several times, every time we take to the road. Our only protection is a piece of plastic we wear on our head.
By the way I am recently returned from conducting a workshop for the International Council of Mining and Metals in London – my first visit to that fair city. One of my first behavioural observations – the wearing of the piece of plastic on the head is an optional extra. What does that say about the culture of the place? Worth pondering on that for a moment I suggest.
Next edition, I shall begin to explore further the aetiology of our understandings about risk, and how we make those famous “risk assessments”. By the end of that edition the “fear should be near”?
David G Broadbent is the director of global safety consulting firm, TransformationalSafety.Com. He is recognised as a world leader in the areas of safety culture and safety leadership and the impacts that these constructs have upon accident causation. David is a regular contributor to international safety forums. He is also the creator of the SAFE-TNET Technologies – the world’s first fully integrated first language safety management system.
David was a Metallurgist with BHP, prior to changing career paths toward the field of applied psychology. This makes him one of a handful of safety psychologists in the world who also has a powerful “hands-on” industrial background. He is known for his ability to chat with workers at the “coal face” right through to the “board room”.
More recently David was involved in a near-fatal accident himself which has led him to focus even more heavily on accident causation and the interaction with perceived risk. His recent introduction of “risk tolerance” into the global safety vocabulary is developing significant interest worldwide. David can be found on Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and Linked- In or his email is firstname.lastname@example.org