Author Bio ▼

Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
August 5, 2020

Get the SHP newsletter

Daily health and safety news, job alerts and resources

risk assessments

The risk assessment trap: Are risk assessments encouraging unsafe behaviours?

Are risk assessments encouraging unsafe behaviours? Tony Roscoe, Head of Consulting Services at Anker & Marsh, looks at human behaviour and whether people take greater risks because a risk assessment has been completed.

Tony Roscoe

Working with SHE professionals, almost daily I meet people who are frustrated with other people’s behaviour, especially when it comes to safety. They feel that they have done everything to keep people safe and that ‘they’ won’t follow basic instructions and stop taking risks.

There are many reasons that people take risk at work, I want to explore one that is not often discussed.

The idea for this article came from a recent discussion on LinkedIn about risk and risk assessment. As with many things in safety, risk assessment is a logical process that is then applied by less than completely logical people.

Are risk assessments encouraging unsafe behaviours?

One of the ways in which risk assessments break down is when it comes to human behaviour and people taking greater risks because a risk assessment has been completed.

This sounds like an oxymoron. People take more risks because we’ve done risk assessments!

Yes, unfortunately this is true. The answer isn’t to not do risk assessments, but to understand why they are taking the risk.

Many years ago, I remember watching an episode of CSI Las Vegas, which involved a car crash and as this show tended to do, they wove some science into the storyline. In this case the science was The Peltzman Effect. This made me curious and I started to look into it, to understand its implications for safety.

The Peltzman Effect is a theory which states that people are more likely to engage in risky behaviour when security measures have been mandated.

Sam Peltzman is an economist who noted that the more safety that was mandated in cars e.g. mandatory seat belts, the more unsafe behaviours people performed in cars.

So, in effect, the safer we make people feel, the more risk that they take.

Safety culture

This is the conundrum I see every day in safety. It is at the core of the frustration of pretty much every SHE person I have ever met.

We take a person and make them feel invincible by covering them head to toe in PPE and giving them a mountain of paperwork, and their response is to take greater risks. In effect, the risk assessment has made it a little more likely that people will take a risk.

How do we overcome this?

Much of this, as with most things, comes down to culture.

The key word in the definition is ‘mandated’. This is where safety is seen as something that is done to people, something that they have little or no control over.

It is no surprise then that organisations with mature cultures based on communication, servant leadership and continual improvement have excellent safety records, because safety is not seen as being done ‘to’ people, but ‘with’ people.

Whilst we continue to do safety to people, then the harder we work as SHE professionals, the more risk that they take, and around and around we go.

Discover media and sponsorship opportunities

Get your hands on the all-new SHP media pack to discover the exciting opportunities available to you, from sponsorship and contributing articles, webinars and white papers, to advertising to over 700,000 annual visitors.

Find the solution that meets your brand's needs today, and download for free.

office

Related Topics

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
19 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Tim O'Dwyer
Tim O'Dwyer
1 month ago

Picking up on the theme of the RA being done to people is the related one of ownership. This is where a point of work risk assessment is a game changer as when done well encourages the individual who is placing themselves in danger to take 5 and check whether circumstances have changed from the initial assumptions of the approvedl RA. Its very difficult when in an office producing the initial RA to foresee all the risks, the worker doing the task adds a valuable additional perspective that can often avoid injury as a result..

Tony Roscoe
Tony Roscoe
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim O'Dwyer

Absolutely POWRAs are extremely important. We train people to understand how their brain works and as part of this, how the part of the brain that doesn’t see risk or consequences works five times faster than the part that does. So you have to stop to allow that part of the brain to catch up. The problem is, I have seen so many POWRA systems imposed on people with little explanation so the staff feel that it’s just another piece of paperwork to complete (another stick to beat them with if they don’t) and don’t see the value in it.… Read more »

Tim Griffiths
Tim Griffiths
1 month ago

An interesting and thought provoking view which I think is true. I have worked in construction for around 50 years and have seen the same thing emerging over the last 10 years but there is another thing which has happened in parallel with the Peltzman Effect. Managers and supervisors are getting so focused on paperwork that they are losing the time and consequently the experience and ability to be ‘out there’ working with the people who their risk assessments are meant to protect. A thousand pieces of paper in the office don’t substitute for timely guidance and advice on the… Read more »

Tony Roscoe
Tony Roscoe
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim Griffiths

I have worked a lot in the same industry and I have seen exactly the same thing. In fact I sat on a board for CIRIA which was looking at quality and me an one other participant had quite a heated discussion with the others, as we both have a background in Lean (which has a bad reputation in building because it has often been applied badly). The argument centred around the use of lean, especially when it comes to paperwork. For me there is two simple acid tests 1) does the paperwork add value to the company or the… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
1 month ago

Great stuff Tony. Some people would know this as ‘risk compensation’ theory. For example, back in the day people couldn’t safely take Volvos to the TT races as bikers had seen figures that they were much more likely to be killed by Volvo drivers than any others. I think that paintwork risk has gone now since other manufacturers have caught up with their safety features.

Nigel Evelyn-Dupree
Nigel Evelyn-Dupree
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim Marsh

I seem to remember that once seat belts were made compulsory, drivers exiting via the windscreen was reduced by almost exactly the same number of extra pedestrians loosing their lives at the same time!

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
1 month ago

I saw a post on linkedin (i think) about my comment saying that the ‘Isle of Man bikers’ phenomenon is an urban myth. So, this also sounds very probable but has anyone access to any hard data? (Likewise in the multi million selling Rules for Life Dan Peterson asserts that if a play area is too safe children will adapt it/ climb over it rather than through it. I’ve a lovely picture of a pair of 4 year olds swinging on the safety barrier of a play structure with huge smiles on their faces … but there’s no data in… Read more »

Nigel Evelyn-Dupree
Nigel Evelyn-Dupree
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim Marsh

It’s only when they get to be teenagers of Helicopter Mum’s that the self-managed of challenging themselves turns into self-harming to either spite their Mum’s as, part of a real rebellion and/or, to get Mum’s attention as a, sort of, ‘Munchhausen by proxy’ in reverse – Parents are dangerous – hahah Isle of Mann has always been and is just about the only road race left for professionals, and most of them know better and don’t ride on the road only the track for work, and semi, sort of, could be pro-riders not wealthy enough to buy a seat at… Read more »

Nigel Evelyn-Dupree
Nigel Evelyn-Dupree
1 month ago

Some advice “be careful what you measure” and that has certainly been true for DSE operators, sort of, forever never no mind of the HSE Better Display Screen RR 561 2007 as, with 58% reporting eye-strain, computer vision syndrome or screen fatigue no one has wanted to monitor, record or admit to the level of presenteeism resulting from operators “carrying-on regardless of self-harming” and, predictably at high risk of 3D vision loss or myopic and asthenopic disease, by maintaining the myth that eye-strain ‘does no harm’ and, is just temporary anyway. Ignoring the WCAG 2.1 and ISO 30071.1 Accessibility Standards… Read more »

Scott Maitland
Scott Maitland
1 month ago

I’ve been suggesting this for years. I think it is more complex in the number of factors though such as experience, working life, life experiences, PPE over use, culture. But I agree about the use of PPE making people feel invincible. From personal experience as ex fire service , as PPE quality and effectiveness improved , risk taking increased. Younger firefighters no longer experienced routine burns and the experience of extreme temperatures. Consequently they would enter environments and not appreciate the levels of risk. This I feel has extended into other environments. It’s an easy trap that MANY organisations fall… Read more »

Karl Bater
Karl Bater
1 month ago

The government in Wales has resisted the use of masks based on the Peltzman Effect. If you are wearing a mask are you more or less likely to socially distance? Good article

David Hardman
David Hardman
1 month ago

Numerous reviews of ‘risk compensation’ theory in recent years have concluded that it is not supported. Indeed, as this commentary points out, Peltzman’s work was full of errors. Of course, everyone has an anecdote about people apparently not behaving safely, but that doesn’t qualify as scientific evidence. Most recently, people have been worrying about people wearing face masks not keeping their distance from others; but some experimental research into real-life queuing behaviour in Berlin, both before and after mandatory masking, found that people kept a greater distance from other people who were wearing masks (and mask-wearers also kept a greater… Read more »

Z. HERICHE
Z. HERICHE
1 month ago

From my experience point of view, some people are allergic to rules, instructions and control measures. When you show them the way for their safety they behave against it. The language of their terms says, “You can’t control us; we know what we are doing; we don’t care about your regulations; ”you are the only one who is responsible and concerned by this measures, it’s your job”. Many workers have said that they are so experienced in this or this area, you hear it many times: “My whole life behind the wheel I have 30 years of experience, I know… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Z. HERICHE
Shelly
Shelly
1 month ago

Just like the seat belt you refer to, safety controls identified in a risk assessment can keep people alive. This is not a choice, and it’s a shame the article fails to remind employers that a risk assessment is a legal requirement.

Trivialising PPE and ‘paperwork’ is unhelpful – these measures can be a difference between life and death.

If it’s engagement you are after, engage with your trade unions. That’s a legal requirement, too!

John
John
1 month ago
Reply to  Shelly

“If it’s engagement you are after, engage with your trade unions. That’s a legal requirement, too!” I’d extend that to not just the Trades Unions, but the actual workers undertaking the task as well, though the biggest problem there often is dealing with the ego’s involved. Some employers repeatedly fail to engage with the Trades Unions, especially on H&S matters when they think they can get away with it, the current round of University reopening planning in Southampton has had almost no Trades Union involvement, even though there’s specific ‘guidance’ from the government there should be, it’s no wonder so… Read more »

Bob Hartley
Bob Hartley
1 month ago

Perhaps “following risk assessments” and “having risk assessments done to them” is key to the issue here. How many organisations consult their employees about the risk assessment before it is formalised ? How many ask for employee input ? How many change the risk assessment to reflect actual practice ? How many get the expert in the task to compose the risk assessment – the expert in the task is not the safety professional, but the operator.

Joe Bloggs
Joe Bloggs
1 month ago

Not sold. A risk assessment isn’t causing reckless behaviour, the reckless behaviour is the default position of the ignorant worker. It might be an excuse, but it’s a ridiculously poor one. It’s like saying “because the risk has been assessed, the risk has been removed”. Not so… and frankly, if that’s people’s thinking (or anything similar), it’s no wonder H&S bods are inclined to think “let natural selection have its way”.

Basher
Basher
1 month ago

We must differentiate between the risk assessment process and the implementation mechanism. Risk assessment is an inevitable process. As for the implementation mechanism, the problem lies here that the communication skills and leadership arts of the person in charge of safety have a very large impact with the study of the psychological, physical and social impact an important factor with a good knowledge of the culture of reward and punishment, even with the word. There must be a logic for everything. You cannot implement something without persuasion, or there is an inquiry without an answer. This is important

Karl Spencer
Karl Spencer
30 days ago

Tony, so many comments (good and bad)… Are risk assessments encouraging unsafe behaviours? No, risk assessments do not encourage unsafe behaviours. Risk assessments done wrongly, management not checking they are suitable for the task and not liaising with workers to encourage safe working creates unsafe behaviours. We take a person and make them feel invincible by covering them head to toe in PPE and giving them a mountain of paperwork… PPE is the last line of defence, the risk assessment alone will not create a safe environment. Culture is defined by as much as management allow people to get away… Read more »