Often in my career of managing safety/risk I've recognized that what I’m really trying to manage is peoples’ perception of risk and not some empirical “risk” value. People don’t tend to solve problems they don’t believe they have, nor do they put a lot of their effort into safety if they believe they are safe.
Understanding how people’s perception of risk is established is important in our risk communication. If our life experience tells us that something is safe, we tend to be satisfied to continue to do things as we have in the past.
Risk perception is a function of many factors:
What do we believe will happen next? Are we optimistic that our plans will turn out positive? Of course! We tend to believe that our way is the right way. If I’m going to use a grinder without my eye protection and I don’t believe that anything will get into my eyes, then I’m unlikely to solve that problem. If I work in a culture where no one will stop me from doing this hazardous task, I should not be surprised that I do the dangerous thing to save time or to be more comfortable. If the safe way to do my job is to go to the tool room to get the needed tool and the tool person is never there and I can’t find my foreman to ask for the tool, then I’m likely to see the cost to address this problem as too big and I’m going to use the wrong tool. My reward is that I’ve saved myself some time and I got the job done.
“I’ve done it for 30 years this way!” We’ve all heard or read this statement. The situation changes and the number of years change but the reality is the same. Doing a task and being successful at it solidifies our view that it’s the right way to do the job. If we’ve been taking terrible risks all those years and have not felt the negative consequences, the situation is enforcing our view or risk, or in some cases the lack of risk. Even though the task may be very risky, we teach ourselves to believe that it’s safe. It becomes the normal and accepted way of doing the job.
Confidence that my skills, knowledge and training are sufficient to do the job without negative consequences to me increases my chances of seeing the task as safe.
When we’re managing safety we need to have these discussions. What are our perceptions of risk and how are they affecting our behaviours. You may find that there are a lot of things we do that can be improved, and that our perception of risk doesn't match the real dangers.