Risk perception is based on a number of factors including a person’s age, how voluntarily a risk is taken, how commonly the risk is encountered and how controllable the person thinks the associated hazard is.
It is generally accepted that younger people find risk more acceptable and that people under-estimate risks they encounter on a regular basis. The second factor is particularly relevant to workplace safety and has been a factor in many disasters, deaths and injuries.
When talking of workplace risk, accountability of stakeholders is an important consideration. For managers, the further they arepersonally removed from the risk, the more likely that competing priorities will alter their perception of risk. For workers and direct supervisors, the proximity to a frequently occurring risk can dilute the perception of that risk.
We are all aware of the rail major disasters in Australia’s history such as the Granville rail disaster (1977), the Glenbrook rail accident (1999) and the Waterfall train disaster (2003). There is a common theme throughout these incidents and the many other major disasters that have occurred worldwide. No one had a ‘total’ view ofthe inter-relationships of the business processes – and for this reason the risk identification process failed. It was only after root-cause-analysis was undertaken after the event thatthe factors leading to the incidents were uncovered.
Prior to the disasters, each person assessed the risks from an individual perspective, based on their own assessment of the situation, perception of risk and the relative importance of the activity orthing to their area of responsibility. Logically each person would then haverated the potential danger differently.
Effective risk assessment
There are many risk assessment methodologies that use risk scenario charting as a means of identifying the potential for system failure. These methodologies are very systematic, time-intensive and multidisciplinary. They are essential in high risk industries to ensure risk scenarios are identified and controlled. Their value comes from taking a total view of the work and having a range of risk perspectives assessing potential risk scenarios. This has a levelling effect on the perception of risk so that hazards are highlighted, assessed and controlled.
In most businesses such methodologies are not used. Each person has a specific role and responsibilities and it largely falls to the senior management team to oversee the business system. Unfortunately, unless the senior management team is ‘hands-on’ and involved in the operational aspects of the business, their focus will likely be on business strategy and financial management, not on potential operational risks. These decisions are often left to line management and workers. Lacking the specific knowledge of a process and/or duty can affect the perception of risk and result in inadequate safety measures and an increased potential for hazards and incidents.
To overcome this it is important that businesses approach the management of safety in the same systematic way they manage their finances – using astructured risk management approach that is auditable, reproducible and measurable. Moreover, it is important that the senior management team receives a broad enough range of information to enable them to make considered decisions about the way their operations are run.
A new era
Safety has undergone a considerable cultural change over the past decade. The Courts are now holding senior managers personally accountable forsafety, regardless of their involvement in day to day operations and prosecutions canlead to significant business losses and criminal charges. Coupled with the increased globalisation of business, safety is now taking on a much broader perspective to that of the compliance model that it hadunder previous legislation.
The nature of business is changing. Travel to other countries where risks areless controlled and much different to those in Australia has the potential to put an organisation’s executives andworkforce in unfamiliar scenarios. Safety and security must become a significant part of business continuity planning. Failure to consider and plan for safety can potentially have dramatic financial and structural impacts on a business. We’ll all remember the news last year of Sundance Resources losing seven of its board members in a plane crash in the Congo.
Safety and security needs to be part of the business strategy, not left to individuals to make a best judgement call on the basis of their understanding of the scenario, most often without access to the full facts about the consequences of their decisions.
Unfortunately their decisions or perception of the risks may not always be sound.
About the author
Ros Burke is a senior consultant within the Workforce Risk Solutions division of Aon Hewitt