The concept of managing risk is quite simple. Like many other safety applications, it’s about effectively guiding people and processes. If it were only that easy. We all manage risk every day but what gets us into trouble as a workforce is when we all come at risk from a different angle. Because our risk thresholds vary what is considered a risky action by one person may not be considered that by another. For example, some people believe that driving doesn’t present a great enough risk and choose comfort over safety. For them a seat belt is not necessary.
A safe condition is the result when risks are effectively managed according to the expectations of all those involved. It requires defining what is acceptable and what is not and then sticking to it. Where people are part of the equation there’s a lot of places where things can go wrong. A variety of risk tolerance usually shows up in the form of human error. For that reason, we must all be on the same page when it comes to applying risk management practices. Since we all share the responsibility of ensuring a safe outcome let’s look at who and what needs to be done when it comes to managing risk.
- Frontline worker—applies risk management at the point of operation. This is where we really see if our risk control practices are working or not. Feedback from the frontline worker helps greatly to refine safety procedures and other prevention activities like workspace inspections, co-worker observations, and pre-shift (tailgate) safety briefings. Want to know how well a safety practice is working or how best to prevent injuries? Just ask the workforce.
- Supervisor—observes safe work practices and applies the principles of process improvement in the form of “plan-do-check-act”. Are we getting the risk reduction results we anticipated with this modified process? If not, can we make some adjustments to get better? Are there training deficiencies or needed equipment upgrades? The supervisor is a safety champion and ensures that safety discussion is taking place daily, is relevant, and meaningful. He/she understands that an engaged workforce responds by doing what is asked of them like thinking about risk and outcomes before they act. The supervisor is responsible for maintaining a positive work environment (“safety climate”) for his/her area and reporting results to middle management.
- Middle management—brings labor and management together to sustain the safety conversation and initiatives. This is commonly done through safety committees, focus or process improvement groups, and incident investigation teams. The middle manager becomes the leadership advocate for change especially those involving a monetary component. Engineering controls, administrative controls, and even new PPE requests need to be communicated to senior leaders in a way that explains the return on investment in terms of business costs and human costs.
- Senior leadership—openly displays a commitment to “safety first”. However, don’t expect an “at all costs” pledge as risk must be approached in a reasonable manner. The sustainability of an organization requires at least a little bit of profit and spending a gazillion dollars on safety would likely doom the company. Risk by senior leaders is evaluated in terms of public relations, cost-benefit analysis, work productivity and worker retention, compliance to avoid citations, and insurance costs. Senior leaders drive accountability, set and evaluate goals, institute safety as a core value, and monitor the progress of safety culture.
There’s a little something for everyone when managing risk. An organization that identifies this need and addresses it throughout all levels of a company is going to be well positioned to keep their workforce healthy, safe, and happy.
About the Author: Dan Hannan is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and has been practicing safety for twenty-four years. He is presently the Vice President and Safety Director for Merjent, an environmental and social consulting firm serving the world’s leading energy and natural resource companies. Merjent consultants have decades of specialized experience on pipeline projects, including planning and feasibility, environmental permitting, construction compliance, operational compliance, third-party analyses, stakeholder engagement, and technology solutions. Dan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.