Shark-infested safety – Re-evaluating risk and finding freedom from fear

sharkIn this special guest feature, we invite Andrew Sharman, Vice Chairman of the Board of IOSH, to describe his approach to risk in both his professional and personal life – which, amongst other activities, occasionally includes swimming with sharks…

At a dinner party last weekend, 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?’

Sure, whilst 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 very personal experience, my central point was that life is not about avoiding risk at all cost but rather it’s about3d_blocks-risk developing the confidence to manage risk appropriately and enable great things to happen.

Despite the society most of us live in being safer and more comfortable than ever before, 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 organizational leaders anxious of anything and everything that has the most remote possibility of causing the slightest injury, to even 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, to 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 these events. Forty years ago Hollywood released a movie that injected so much fear into society that it still has millions of us panicked each time we go to the seaside. 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 paralyzing 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 indeed fascinated by them. And it was this fascination that led me to work on overcoming my fears 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 paralyze 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 endeavor 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 organizational needs.  We lead the effort to shift our corporate culture from polarized 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.  RBDM is a decision-making process by 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.  The U.S. Department of Energy has come up with a slick acronym for their method of RBDM.  They call it SAFER.  The steps are:

  1. Summarize 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. Evaluatecontrols 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.

Thinking alone will not overcome fear, but action will.  We must passionately lead our organizations to evolve from being fearful of risk to the embracing of functional practices that result in maximized organizational 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 (MA(Law) MSc CFIOSH FIIRSM FInstLM MIoD EurOSHM) is the Vice Chairman of the Board of IOSH. His latest book, From Accidents to Zero, is now available. For more vital health and safety guides, facts and advice, please sign up to SafetyMatters, RoSPA’s free fortnightly newsletter, and receive our collection of free original e-books!


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