This month I would like to talk about our appetite for risk, and how this affects not only our decisions in health and safety, but also in a wider community context. We all make decisions around risk every minute of our lives, from driving a car to climbing on a ladder to clean out our gutters.
Most sporting and recreational activities also carry a significant degree of risk. We may decide that the risk of mountain biking down a particular track is unacceptable to us.
In this regard there is no right or wrong answer. It is more about the process of how we decide the relative importance of competing aspects in determining the acceptable level of risk.
Covid brings this concept into clear focus. The competing aspects basically come down to saving lives and not overwhelming the health system versus saving businesses and livelihoods and not restricting our freedoms, including freedom of choice.
Lockdowns, MIQ, mandates, and covid passports have all helped to reduce covid numbers and subsequent hospitalisations and deaths. But the business community, particularly hospitality and tourism, has suffered considerably, as have those people who have lost their employment as a result. Restrictions and mandates have also caused unrest and polarisation within our wider community.
Now at the peak of Omicron, all the mandates and passports are gone, and a few people might be asking what exactly has changed to cause this. Has the risk reduced, or has our appetite for the risk changed? Are we now willing to risk people contracting covid in order for a return to some sort of normal?
The bigger question is how were such decisions made. What discussions or negotiations took place with the wider community? Were they open and public, or did they take place behind closed doors?
The biggest challenge for the government lies in gaining a consensus on the acceptable level of risk, in a way that everyone feels they had a chance to contribute to the discussion. Could the protest in Wellington be a result of people not feeling like their voice has been listened to?
We face exactly the same challenge in our efforts to achieve zero harm on work sites. Too often in an organisation one group of people, management or the safety team, will decide (or dictate) what are the acceptable levels of risk, without consulting another group (perhaps the workers on the ground) who may have a different view of the risks and will not fully buy in to what they are being told to do.
For frontline workers, supervisors and foremen in particular, this can be compounded by the way they are being separately told that they must finish a job on time, within budget and to a required standard. It can feel like they are now being left to balance competing priorities, having to review and revise the acceptable levels of risks themselves, and health and safety can be compromised as a result.
It all comes back to communication, sharing and discussing the plan with everyone and making the effort to get a consensus before the work starts, rather than taking the easy route of just telling people.
And it’s not just the health and safety plan, either. How cost, time and quality will also be achieved needs to be discussed at the same time to make sure it will all work together and frontline workers will not end up in a position where they have to choose between competing priorities.
We must also be consistent when it comes to acceptable level of risk, to gain the buy-in we need from workers and the confidence of the wider community that we are properly managing health and safety, ours and theirs.
A passing motorist seeing one worker on the side of the road having two attenuator trucks for protection from passing vehicles, and then another worker further on with none, is not going to gain that confidence, any more than someone working at height will have confidence in a manager coming to site and telling him to wear safety glasses when he hasn’t been provided with adequate fall protection.
It is critical for any organisation that an acceptable level of risk is decided in consultation with those that face the risks, and then all other decisions flow from there.
Paul Duggan, General Manager