NSC: How Does the Human Element Affect Risk?

Three experts at the National Safety Council (NSC) Annual Congress and Expo in Anaheim, Calif., examined how the human element – behaviors, actions and decisions – can affect risk and impact workplace safety.

The panel featured Brian Hughes, vice president of Apollo Associated Services LL, Stuart Alleman, master expert for Raytheon Space and Airborne and Steve Brown, corporate safety manager for Southern California Edison. Hughes opened the sessions by urging the panel and audience to define risk.

Brown said his company considers risk “the potential for something to go wrong or the potential for someone to sustain an injury.”

Alleman added, “If we put our people at risk, we’ll have problems.”

“Most definitions of risk look at the downside,” Hughes explained. But he added that in the finance world, risk means variability. “Risk brings greater returns, and it also brings greater losses.”

Workplace safety, however, involves more than finances and spreadsheets: the human element can affect risk, Hughes said.

“When people are involved, people are highly variable, and their actions are hard to predict,” he said.

Actions vs. Conditions

The components of risk include systematic risk and unsystematic risk. Systematic risk, as Hughes described it, is risk inherent in the market – it cannot be diversified away. Unsystematic risk, meanwhile, is the risk of any individual in the market. Total risk is a combination of these two types.

“Decisions involve risk,” Hughes said. “Effect is caused by both action and condition.”

The problem in deciphering the human element of risk may revolve around the fact that most companies tend to focus on the action rather than the condition.

“We don’t know to look for conditions. People are generally focused on action causes,” Hughes said.

Alleman agreed, explaining that he noticed a pattern when analyzing 14 similar workplace incidents.

“Each individual organization handled [the situation] in certain way” he said. “They all attacked actions – retrain people, put more reviews in place to solve problem and lower the threshold – [but] didn’t fix any of them.”

When Alleman and his team examined the incidents together instead of separately, they noticed some common causal effects, including behavior, ownership of problems and how those problems were dealt with when they happened.

“When we looked at them together, we saw the systematic problems,” Alleman explained.

Management’s Role

The panel also discussed how company management could affect how human risk elements impact workplace safety.

“In the past, we looked at the floor risk level,” Brown said. “We can lower that floor, but one of the problems we found is getting the management involved in lowering that floor and taking risk away.”

For example, Brown said in one case, employees were expected to wear safety glasses when working in a particular area. When management was around, workers would wear the protection. But with no one around to watch them, many did not wear the glasses.

“Once we got them involved and helped them realize what’s in it for them, it really turned the corner for us, getting employees involved,” Brown said. “The best way we got them involved was to encourage the safety team environment and then having management in there, giving them training for oversight and to be quiet and listen and address what they’re coming up with.”

Pressure

The panel members agreed that putting additional pressure – whether it’s schedule, cost, quality or another type of pressure – on employees can increase risk in the workplace. By combining the analyses from the past year to look for systemic causes across the board, Alleman said pressure was clearly a factor.

“When they put that pressure on people, instances happen,” Alleman said.

When management was presented with the information that this pressure helped drive increased risk and contributed to incidents in the workplace, Alleman said management first tried to push the issue away. But when yet another incident happened, management finally realized pressure indeed might be a factor.

“They need to step back and see how they’re affecting the bottom-level people having accidents,” Alleman said of management.

“As things get more competitive, you have to increase complexity of the products you’re taking on,” Hughes explained. “I think people tend to undervalue the risks involved in that kind of change. That’s going to create a floor-level risk around schedule pressure that everyone will see, not just safety: quality, delivery, customer satisfaction, etc.”

When management listens to employees, the human element affecting risk may decrease, the panel explained.

“A lot of times, we blame people for what happens,” Alleman pointed out. “The secret we found is if you can get the top level to listen to the bottom level, the listening will surface issues quickly and resolve themselves without you having to get involved.”