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Max Geyer - Management ConsultantWhen we established Viamax, Sylvia and I wanted to base our efforts on a theme that would represent us personally and also that would represent our business to our clients...

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Building resilience trumps the prevention of harm.

Building resilience trumps the prevention of harm.

The prevention of harm is about trying to see, predict and control all things that may deliver an undesired outcome.  Society and organisations develop regulations, rules, systems, procedures, structures, training, inspections, investigations, and punishment and reward programs, in order to manage the interaction of people and work activities.  At the same time we have insurance policies, rehabilitation programs, law courts, audits, re-training programs, review and improvement programs, because of the humanness and fallibility of humans; because we know that where people are involved, not all will be anticipated, mistakes will be made, things will not go to plan and on occasions harm will result.

This paper argues that, when dealing with risk and safety, it is preferable to develop resilience than to try to prevent all harm.  It does so by highlighting the limitations and by-products enacted by attempting to eliminate all harm and then identifies the advantages of developing resilient capacity when dealing with the unexpected.

The Collins English Dictionary (2003) defines harm as ‘physical or mental injury or damage’.  A search of the top one hundred Australian listed companies will reveal many with declared values or risk and safety policies which espouse the elimination of harm and or have zero harm as a goal[2].  In relation to discerning and managing risk in the workplace, having the capacity to eliminate or prevent harm implies we would have the capacity to identify all physical or mental injury or damage associated with the operations of the organisation.  Further, having an ability to identify all harm also implies we would have a capacity to foresee all events which could bring about that harm; that is, we would be omniscient, which is clearly not possible.  The elimination of harm is not only not possible, as a negatively framed goal, it primes the organisation, its management and its people for failure (Custers, 2009).  And as a by-product, it drives a culture of fear in relation to the reporting of incidents, it restricts the individual’s ability to exercise judgement and it stifles innovation, learning and improvement (Long, 2012); it stifles what it is to be human.

The international standard related to risk management AS/NZS ISO 31000:2009 Risk management – Principles and guidelines, defines risk as the “effect of uncertainty on objectives”[1] (cited in HB 327:2010).  The companion guide to that Standard, HB 327:2010 Communicating and consulting about risk (The Handbook) warns that ‘Communicating and consulting about risk requires an understanding of the central role of uncertainty in the generation of risk.’ (HB 327:2010).  When one further examines the attendant notes to the definition from the Standard (see footnote below) Note 2 points to the holistic nature of risk by emphasising that risk is not confined to health and safety or to any one part or level of an organisation.  Indeed, in support of the view that the nature of “risk management” is a concept to be dealt with as a holistic issue, the World Health Organisation defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (cited in Aghadiuno, 2010).

The Australian Government Comcare website points to the health benefits of work when it references some of the hazards which are to be addressed when attempting to eliminate or minimise workplace harm, when it states:

Work is generally beneficial to mental health and personal wellbeing. It provides people with structure and purpose and a sense of identity. It also provides opportunities for people to develop and use their skills, to form social relationships, and to increase their feelings of self-worth. (Australian Government Comcare, 2014, accessed 22/09/2015).

For most people their stability of employment would be a critical component of their mental and social well-being and an attack on that employment would constitute an instance of harm.  This indicates that our search for the sources of harm, and elimination of that harm would need to consider all components of the organisation, no matter how small that may impact of the success of the business and hence the well-being of its employees.  It further highlights the holistic nature of harm and the implausibility of eliminating it.

Australian workplace health and safety legislation acknowledges that the total elimination of risk is not likely.  Indeed, the basis of the legislation is ‘reasonable practicability’ (Model WHS Act 2011, Section 18).  In order to exercise their workplace health and safety due diligence, management are required to take ‘reasonable steps’, and apply ‘appropriate resources and processes’ in the fulfilment of their duties and obligations (WHS Act 2011, Section 27 (5)).

The methods used to identify and assess risks, as described in the risk management Standard mentioned above, are subjective in nature and not an exact science.  The identification and assessment processes are heavily dependent on: the knowledge, expertise and understanding of the people involved in the risk assessment exercise; on their knowledge and expertise related to the thing or process being assessed; and on how they make decisions.  The process is dependent on the perception of those involved, and The Handbook accepts this when it states:

Perceptions are what people apprehend to be true—particularly through reliance on their own senses, concepts, experiences, assumptions, knowledge, value sets, intuition and prejudices.

Perceptions may therefore reflect, or vary from, reality but are often a powerful element in the way further information is considered. Consequently, different individuals may view the same information differently and draw different conclusions. (HB 327:2010).

The Handbook further warns us that in consulting and communicating about risk we need to also consider ‘… a number of demographic and socio-economic determinants such as age, sex, education, social class, ethnicity and income strata also affect individual and group perceptions.’ (HB 327:2010).

We know that people have ‘bounded rationality’ (Gigerenzer & Todd, 1999) and generally make decisions as resourcefully as possible by employing ‘satisficing heuristics for searching through a sequence of available alternatives, and fast and frugal heuristics that use little information and computation to make a variety of kinds of decisions.’ (Gigerenzer & Todd, 1999).  Research informs us that when people make judgements and discern situations, which may involve risk, they take account of salience and accessibility (Hogg & Vaughan, 2010); they make decisions based on their own schemas (Hogg & Vaughan, 2010); and they apply their personal and collective biases such as: group think, clustering, confirmation bias, overconfidence (hubris), selective perception, anchoring bias and availability heuristic (Gigerenzer & Todd, 1999; Hogg & Vaughan, 2010; Plous, 1993; Slovic, 2010; Sunstein, 2004), and their intuitions or ‘gut feelings’ (Gigerenzer, 2007).  The Handbook acknowledges the humanity of people and the valuable role that heuristics play in decision making about risk when it states: ‘… Heuristics are valid risk assessment tools in some circumstances and can lead to “good” estimates of statistical risk in situations where risks are well known.’ (HB 327:2010).

The employment of short cuts, by the use of satisficing and heuristics, and the application of biases, ultimately results a great deal of ‘exformation’, that is, information which is either not considered, or is briefly considered and discarded during the decision making process (Norretranders, 1998).

Decisions and assessments made about risk are subjective.  They are as much dependent on the makeup of the cohort considering the risks, the means those involved employ to identify risks, and the means they adopt to help their decision making process, as they are on the nature of the risks themselves.  With so much subjectivity involved it is clearly impossible to identify all sources of harm let alone prevent all harm.

Another issue with preventing all harm has to do with the humanness of those involved.  Billett, Gruber and Harteis (2012) tell us that ‘… Firstly, complex problems and fuzzy rules shape an environment of human behaviour which makes errors unavoidable; and, secondly, errors can be fruitful incidents for further development.’

This leaves us with a number of challenges.  What do we do in relation to the harm that we cannot identify and/ or control?  What do we do to manage harm from events that are unexpected?  What do we do when people, as fallible humans, make mistakes?  And how can we benefit from the lessons learned in order to better prepare for the next unexpected event?   To read more of the original article check here:

 

[1] The definition is accompanied by four “Notes” as follows: (1) An effect is a deviation from the epected (sic) – positive and/or negative. (2) Objectives can have different aspects (such as financial, health and safety, and environmental goals) and can apply at different levels (such as strategic, organization-wide, project, product and process). (3) Risk is often characterized by reference to potential events and consequences or a combination of these. (4) Risk is often expressed in terms of a combination of the consequences of an event (including changes in circumstances) and the associated likelihood of occurrence.

[2] BHP Billiton, Glencore, Rio Tinto, Woolworths, Leighton Holdings (CIMIC), Lend Lease, Downer EDI, all have, or include, zero harm in their espoused goals as viewed on their websites.