Safety Advisory Foundation for Education & Research

How to create a culture that reduces risk tolerance

10 influencing factors impact workers’ decisions

June 11, 2018  

By Dave Fennell

Several years ago, I had the great fortune to work with a team of safety experts, behavioural scientists and cognitive specialists to understand the “whys” and “hows” of risk tolerance. We explored some all-too-common questions: Why do we take risks? Why do workers proceed with tasks where known hazards exist? When is the acceptance of risk too high? What can be done about this?

We discovered that there are three separate processes occurring in our brain when we are assessing hazards and risks on and off the job. The first is recognition of the hazard, essentially answering the question, “Do I see it?”. We need to be able to recognize that a hazard exists to get our brain started with the assessment process. Sometimes we can visually see the hazard and other times we need a device to help us see it, such as a toxic gas, electricity or radiation. When we do not see a hazard, we can unknowingly engage in an at-risk behaviour. This is why hazard recognition training is needed.

The second process is the perception of the risk. This is where we answer the questions: “Do I understand it?” and “Do I know how this hazard will impact me?”. The fact is that we do not always understand how the hazard will impact us or the severity of the impact. For example, we could see that a fluid is hot, but we may not understand the impact of that temperature on our skin or the severity of the burn it may cause. Underestimating the severity results in us proceeding with the task without the protective equipment, which is an at-risk behaviour. Good safety management systems need to have processes that are continually advancing worker knowledge on the impacts of hazards. Consider reviewing incidents to show how the task being performed has resulted in previous incidents and using personal stories that relay the consequences and severity of the exposure to that hazard.

The third, and most important of the three cognitive processes, is the decision we make with the information we have obtained in the first two stages. We see the hazard, we understand the hazard and now we make a decision: “Do I accept the risk?” or “Do I take action to eliminate or reduce the risk?” It is this decision-making process that is at the foundation of understanding risk tolerance. There is a distinct and separate cognitive process for this decision-making step. Good hazard recognition does not equate to lower risk tolerance. For years the issue has been casually described as hazard recognition and risk tolerance as though it were a single concept and we believed that by improving hazard recognition, we could reduce risk tolerance. This is not the case. Risk tolerance needs to be understood and addressed directly.

The team of experts identified 10 influencing factors that impact our decisions on risk tolerance:

•Over-estimating capability and experience: We have a human tendency to believe that strength and agility can overcome hazards or that we have sufficient past experience to get us through an at-risk situation.

•Familiarity with the task: Complacency results in a high risk acceptance as we convince ourselves that an incident won’t happen this time because it did not happen the last time. We develop a self-satisfaction and confidence over many repetitions of the task and become blind to risks that may have crept in.

•The seriousness of the outcome: We often under-estimate how serious hazards and risks can be and believe that even if something unwanted occurs, it won’t be that bad.

•Voluntary activities and the perception of being in control: We accept more risk when we voluntarily engage in activities and when we feel in control. These two factors are very evident in the statistics that show off-the-job injuries are significantly higher than on-the-job injuries, usually an order of magnitude higher. This is an important part of understanding risk tolerance as it gives us an understanding of inherent risk tendencies when we are not under the control of a workplace rule or standard.

•Personal experience: Personally going through a serious event has been shown to reduce the acceptance of risk. Sharing these personal experiences in our work groups can help the next generation of workers be safer without having to personally experience a bad event.

•The cost of non-compliance: Personal cost impacts our decisions on how much risk to take. A higher cost of non-compliance will reduce the acceptance of risk. Organizations need to understand how to effectively use this factor, as it needs to be very specific, calculated and consistent.

•Over-confidence in equipment: Putting too much trust in machines is the result of a phenomena called risk homeostasis. We all accept a certain range of risk and are constantly adjusting our acceptance based on how safe we feel. We can become over-confident in the safety features of the equipment we use and, thus, take more risks because we feel safer.

•Over-confidence in personal protective equipment: It is important that our workers understand what PPE can do, but they also must be realistic and know the limitations.

•Role models accepting risk: The role models in a workplace will have an impact on the risk acceptance of the work group. If they accept risk, this will translate into a higher risk tolerance among other individuals and, in fact, the entire team. Understanding who the informal role models are and knowing their penchant for risk acceptance is paramount for addressing the risk tolerance of the team.

These 10 influencing factors need to be understood by safety professionals, supervisors and managers in order to create a culture that reduces risk acceptance. Simply identifying hazards is no longer enough in the quest to reduce risk tolerance. We need to understand why we make the decisions we do.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2018 issue of COS.