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Risk Takers Wanted

By Bennett Cuthbert
Published: July 21, 2021
Presented by Safemap
Key Takeaways

Making your workforce competent at taking risks will make your hazard controls far more effective.

Caption: Workers walking in industrial plant Source: shironosov / iStock

Injury rates are loweing but fatalities have not declined with them. That means we need to redefine safety. Instead of thinking of it in terms of reduced injury, we need to think of it in terms of risk. Ewan Alexander and Kimm Barker of Safemap International explain why.

This article is based on the Risk Takers Wanted webinar. Register now to learn more!


According to the US incident fatality rate, the rate of non-fatal incidents has been decreasing tremendously. However, the fatality rate has not declined at the same rate and instead has gone quite flat. This demonstrates that the measures taken to decrease the overall incident rate have not translated to a lower fatality rate. Something must change.

On the recordable injury chart and the fatality chart, serious potential incidents are recorded as zero. This means that approaching zero does not necessarily equate to safety. In fact, data suggests that as you approach zero, the probability of fatality increases. Safety can no longer be defined by the absence of injuries but in a definition of risk. It is seeing an accident before it happens and taking the necessary and correct steps to prevent it from happening.

Safety Culture and Leadership

Organizations must have strategies they can use to achieve the desired balance between taking enough risks and remaining safe enough that will allow for maximized resulting success.

Safety performance is created by culture, but the single biggest influence on culture is leadership, which is also supported by systems.

For leadership to be effective it must:

  • Create the right context
  • Be deep safe leadership
  • Acknowledge humans as its greatest strength
  • Build trust and transparency
  • Measure the right things

We should trust humans because they are the ones making the decisions. Most of the time, they make the right ones. However, on the odd occasion that they don't, they shouldn't fear punishment and instead feel comfortable reporting the risk. This allows everyone to benefit and use it as a learning opportunity.

For systems to positively benefit culture, they should:

  • Focus on high-consequence hazards
  • Be challenged randomly and continuously
  • Acknowledge HR systems as key
  • Acknowledge humans as their greatest strength

Due to the significance of culture, it should be measured and benchmarked and you should also be aware of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. The accumulation of all these aspects will allow for an improvement of safety performance.

Smart Risk Management

Step One: Improve Controls

The first step on the journey toward smart management of risk is to analyze our risks and improve our controls. The goal is to increase the chance of success while remaining safe enough.


One possible method to achieve this is Bowtie Risk Analysis, where you identify the event along with its possible causes, preventative control, possible consequences, and reactive control measures. The point, however, is not just about adding those controls but also about the way people interact with the risk. The more we feel we have control, the more we feel we can take risks. This means that improving controls without increasing risk competence will make those controls far less effective.

Step Two: Train Smart Risk Takers

The second part of the journey is getting the right people to use the controls we've established.

Some people have a greater propensity to take risk than others. However, trying to eliminate people based on their interaction with risk is not an effective way to drive improvement. Instead, people should be taught how to be good at taking risk. They need to be aware of what’s going on and how they are interacting with the risk because that is the only way to increase the chance of success.

Step Three: Becoming Risk Competent

The final part of the journey is becoming risk competent. When incidents happen there is always a combination of factors that lead to the at-risk situation, but organizations often focus only on taking corrective action based on the at-risk actions they are seeing.

In reality, it would be more productive to focus on the 6 possible "Whys" that affected that person’s behaviours and decisions that caused the incident.

The Six Whys

By being proactive, we can design better controls that will provide better outcomes when people make decisions, which will increase their risk competence. To do this, we must look into the Why behind each incident.

These are the six core Whys:

  • Overlooked: risks that are unseen, invisible, or unrecognized by individuals
  • Underestimated: risks whose likelihood, exposure, or impact is misjudged, causing people to be less cautious
  • Rewarded or Penalized: risks that are taken becauseof a reward associated with it
  • Inherent: risks that are inherent to the process, system, or resources used and can, therefore, not be elimated
  • Balanced: risks undertaken because of pressure from production requirements, such as rushing
  • Tolerated: risks that are known but accepted or ignored, often framed as "the way things have always been done"

These six Whys are crucial for understanding what influences people's decisions and their resulting risk competency. This information can show us what systemic changes can be made to create meaningful change and prevent future incidents.

Taking risk is the only way to improve the chance of your success. That's why it's so important for companies to have risk-takers. However, too much risk can lead to unsafe situations, which is why it is imperative that organizations find the balance between taking enough risk and being safe enough. To do so, you must be familiar with how you interact with risk and have proper systems in place to ensure people feel empowered to make the right decisions.

The six Whys will assist you in creating those systems by showing you the motive behind each risk taken and can be used to determine where potential exists for an incident to occur. This allows you to be proactive and correct the issue before it turns into an incident, topping up your overall performance.

Q&A Session

Q: Why do we want our employees to be good at taking risks when our job as safety professionals is to prevent safety risks?

A: If we just put the controls in place, people will work around them. it’s in our nature to do that. That's why it's important to enable people to be competent at taking rsisks. We have found the Six Whys process to be incredibly successful in doing this.

You can’t eliminate risk, so it's better to look it in the eyes and realize that there are ways to minimize it. As safety professionals, we need to move beyond things like Zero Incident programs, because humans are our strongest link in the chain. That involves a lot of trust and a lot of transparency in both directions. You want the employees to tell you when something doesn’t go as well as it might. For that to happen, they need to trust that you're going to respond the right way.

Q: How can you determine the risk appetite of individual employees? Are there any validated instruments that can be administered to assess this?

A: An American cab company did a personality analysis on their drivers to determine their risk appetite versus their accident rate. They divided drivers into four personality groups: forceful, persuasive, cooperative, and systematic.

The forceful people were the skeptics who believed it’s probably safe. The persuasive ones were challengers, assuming that if you can’t prove it’s dangerous, then it’s safe. The cooperative people were critics who believed that unless you can prove it’s safe, it's dangerous. Lastly, the systematic ones were cynics, assuming it’s probably dangerous.

The results showed that the skeptics and the challengers were the ones who broke the most rules. And yet, they had the lowest accident rates. Even though they were driving a bit faster and breaking more rules, they were paying more attention and anticipating events.

Some places use similar methods to determine risk appetite in people. Their mistake, however, is trying to hire the critics and cynics - the more risk averse types. In reality, what you want is to use is the skills of people who are good at taking risks and improve on that capability.

That's controversial and a little difficult to do, but it is the challenge that’s in front of us as safety professionals and safety leaders.

That's where the Six Whys come in again. Do you see the risk? Do you estimate the probability of it occurring correctly? Do you make sure that you’re not taking shortcuts? Do you make sure there’s no inherent need to take shortcuts? Have you eliminated the risk wherever you can by redesigning the work?

Also, the focus should be on leadership and systems that can create the right culture rather than trying to eliminate people with different propensities for risk-taking. Risk appetite changes based on the situation the factors influencing the people in it. It’s important to look for ways to systematically and consistently influence the workforce to make the right decisions or feel empowered to take a step back if things just aren’t going according to plan.

Q: It seems important to note that there can be multiple Whys for each scenario. Is there a connection between the more buckets of Whys you find and the more work you have to do improving your culture?

A: There are links between the Why scoring and there can be more than one Why selected for any given situation. Overlooking risks is a training issue. Underestimating risks is one, too. Balancing and tolerating risks are far more of a leadership issue, which you need to understand in terms of the impact your leadership is having on the culture. That’s why it needs to be benchmarked so you can understand what the triggers are causing people to take more risks based on one of these other Whys.

Q: When a company is manufacturing, for example, tobacco products, and the main aim is for them to profit by getting their end-user addicted to their product, why are companies taking the risk with the exchange of people’s health?

A: That’s an ethics question - a question about fundamental values. If you think back to the Whys, we can see this as balancing the risk to society versus profits and production. That's definitely outside of the scope of what we talk about here as safety professionals but it’s a definite dilemma in society.

To watch this video, head over to the Risk Takers Wanted webinar page and register now.


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