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February 25, 2015

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SAFER by decision: How to escape the culture of fear

By Andrew Sharman

At a dinner party last night, the conversation turned to work. When asked what I did for a living, I replied ‘I work in safety.’ My inquisitor responded promptly with ‘Ah, I see. So you’re that guy that stops people doing things because they might be a little bit risky…’

It seems that our reputation continues to precede us wherever we go. How many times have you, as a practitioner or leader in OSH, found the profession at the centre of a joke which concludes that we are ‘risk averse, action-stopping do-gooders?’

While I am happy to see people enjoying a good laugh, there’s a massive misconception here; if we are to truly do our job of protecting people, planet and profit, we must face towards risk, not away from it.

I was recently asked to give a TED talk to share my views on safety and risk. Using a personal experience, my central point was that life is not about avoiding risk at all cost but rather it’s about developing the confidence to manage risk appropriately and enable great things to happen.

In recent years we seem to have built a culture of fear that promotes hesitancy and over-caution. We see this manifesting every day in our working lives. From organisational leaders anxious of anything and everything that has the most remote possibility of causing the slightest injury, to our professional peers over-zealously ramming the ‘safety first’ mentality to the top of corporate agendas, often causing great rifts as they jam safety head-to-head with productivity.

What happened? Fear. Our perspectives on risk have slid to a point where we often struggle to see the true picture. Media manipulation sideswipes objective thinking and skews robust decision-making. We can all think of stories about ‘how safety has stopped something’ – whether it be hanging flower baskets taken down for fear of them falling on someone’s head, or children’s playgrounds razed to the ground. The modern mantra associated with these ‘safety risks’ is always “But what if…?”

Fear, not risk management, has caused this reaction. Forty years ago Hollywood released a movie that injected so much fear into society that it still has millions of us panicking each time we go to the beach. That familiar tune plays through our heads as we swim out into deeper water – and then hastily splash back to the shore.

It’s exactly this type of paralysing fear that I speak of in my TED talk. Though perhaps rather unusually, my fear was of the water itself, rather than what was in it. You see from a very early age, I wasn’t scared of sharks, but actually fascinated by them. And it was this fascination that led me to work on overcoming my fear of the water, and perhaps even drove me to become a risk management professional.

We all have fears, but once free of the elements that paralyse us, we become enabled to achieve goals previously thought unattainable. The real value proposition for us as OSH professionals, then, is our ability to take an inherently risky human endeavour and use our unique skill set to enable success without loss.

How? We begin by changing our language. Stop asking “What if…?” and start saying “What if we could…” And then demonstrate how we can manage the risks to an acceptable level.  We engage employees and leaders in identifying actions that both decrease risk and increase the chance of success. We precisely define the risk problem, partner with our people to solve it, and enable the satisfaction of organisational needs. We lead the effort to shift our corporate culture from polarised perspectives on risk to informed and balanced decision-making.

In the terms of our profession, we must become energetic advocates and facilitators of Risk Based Decision Making a solid process through which you systematically identify hazards, assess the degree of risk, and determine the best course of action to achieve the goal with an acceptable level of risk. There’s a nice acronym for this, called ‘SAFER’, the steps are:

  1. Summarise the critical steps
  2. Anticipate/discuss errors for each critical step and relevant error precursors.
  3. Foresee probable and worst-case consequences during each critical step.
  4. Evaluate controls or contingencies at each critical step to prevent, catch, and recover from errors and to reduce their consequences.
  5. Review previous experience and lessons learned relevant to the specific task and critical steps and then make a fully-informed decision.

Thinking alone will not overcome fear, but action will. We must passionately lead our organisations to evolve from being fearful of risk to the embracing of functional practices that result in maximised organisational success regarding people, planet and profit. Let’s imagine a little more. Let’s not fear the sharks of safety, but instead step up to the shoreline and ask “What if we could…?

Andrew Sharman is Chief Executive of RyderMarshSharman, a global consultancy specialising in organisational safety culture and leadership. With offices in the UK, Switzerland, North America and the Middle East, RyderMarshSharman has a 20-year track record of improving culture and enabling excellence for NGOs and organisations around the world through industry sectors including mining, construction, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and FMCGs. 

Watch Andrew’s TED talk here:

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Safety... a la Carte.
Safety... a la Carte.
9 years ago

Another in a long line of well-meant and well thought out recipes for serving up safety in a tempting little ‘amuse -bouche’ type format to once again try and tempt the eponymous ‘production managers’ who consistently refuse to accept that safety is an essential part of their diet to support a health corporate body. What is actually needed it more of a ‘ Menu Degustation’ offering, safety served up over a longer period of time and consisting of many different smaller dishes which contribute to an appreciation of the whole eating experience. Like the French and their knowledge of fine… Read more »

John Bartlett
John Bartlett
9 years ago

Its’ a reputation we deserve! When I see method statements that are like War & Peace on site for tasks that do not have a significant risk I lose the will to live let alone the operatives. The record to date is 65 pages!

Phil Pinnington
Phil Pinnington
9 years ago

I astounded and disappointed that no other practioners have written so far in full support of Andrews article. As a relatively new practioners (10 years) I’ve advocated this stance since I became qualified. Risk is inherent in our daily lives. As human being’s we’re wired into the notion that risk exists in all forms be it the stepping on the cat when you get out of bed to crossing a busy road. The notion that manage risk to zero is frankly unworthy of comment. I believe our role is to support business in delivering it’s goals- safely. Writing reams and… Read more »