Last month I caused a bit of a furore over on my LinkedIn when I shared this post:
Although I was aware that this opinion goes against the grain somewhat, I was surprised by the magnitude of the response. With over 400 comments and 600 reactions, it’s fair to say that a lot of my fellow safety professionals had a lot to say!
Why would you say such a thing?
Because it’s true! I’ve built a career out of urging business leaders and safety professionals to look beyond numbers and instead take a straightforward, people-first approach to risk management.
Quantitative and numerical risk assessments – though common – go against one of my fundamental core beliefs: risk assessments should be, above all, a simple and practical method of managing the risk of harm, not made for safety professionals themselves but for those on the frontline.
Numerical risk assessments are far removed from the reality of dynamic, ever-changing workplaces. Time spent juggling numbers and calculations for task-based activities adds no real value, providing a mostly baseless, needlessly specific view of things and generally overcomplicating the process.
Too many safety professionals complexify when they should be simplifying, stuffing risk assessments full of figures to show their work. When the assessment finally makes it into the hands of those that need it, it’s just too complicated to make proper use of.
Will the control measures implemented change all that much based on a 5 point difference when the obvious answer to ‘there’s no edge protection’ is usually ‘install edge protection’?
Instead of this incessant focus on the numbers and back-and-forth over whether a risk is a low 2, low 3, or medium 4, I believe safety professionals should instead be striving for a simple but effective hazard + risk + solution approach, encouraging and enabling those that are trained and competent to work safely.
The magic of LinkedIn
LinkedIn is, of course, a communication platform, and you might not be surprised to learn that plenty of people disagreed with me. Although the quality of debate on social media can be hit or miss, to put it mildly, there were some fantastic, thoughtful responses worth considering.
This one, for example, highlights that it’s important to remember that, ultimately, risk assessment is subjective, and there’s no one right way to do things.
Different methods have shortcomings which can be overcome by combining them with other strategies. I agree that some sort of framework is necessary, but feel that the obsession with numbers continues to hold us back more than it helps. Nevertheless, I agree that coaching employees and empowering them to make the right choices is by far the best option. I just don’t think boxes full of numbers are the way to do that.
One from the ‘I agree with David’ camp. A risk is a risk, no matter your subjective opinion of the severity. Again, how likely is it that the measures put in place will change based on whether you personally decide it’s a 3 or 30?
Another interesting point. Risk assessments are not for identifying and accounting for every single thing that can go wrong – because that’s impossible – but for identifying the most likely risks and triaging your response to them.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t explain why numerical assessments are better than your standard low, medium, and high grades, or a qualitative assessment. Surely whoever receives the risk assessment at the other end has enough to go on without chucking a load of numbers into the mix?
The mood of the negative responses seemed to translate to one question: ‘well, do you have a better option?’ and that’s fair. Numerical, quantitative risk assessments are as common as they are because there aren’t a huge amount of alternatives.
But does that mean we should continue to rely on something that isn’t fit for purpose?
What’s the alternative?
Ultimately, despite all the arguments for and against them, I still haven’t yet gotten a straight answer to why numerical risk matrices are beneficial. People seem to either hate them or begrudgingly accept them because there are no better options.
The example I used in my post was a real matrix I received from a bricklayer, who admitted to me that he was just ‘number crunching’, and wasn’t actually sure what tangible benefits there were to it. Neither was his site manager. If whoever is filling in the risk assessment isn’t sure why it matters, what’s the point?
Risk assessments should be about making life easier for the worker, equipping them with the resources to make informed decisions. It shouldn’t be a box-ticking exercise (or, in this case, a ‘fill the boxes with numbers’ exercise) but a logical, clear examination of risk.
I think that moving forward, we should make an effort as an industry to simplify a lot of the procedures we’ve become accustomed to, particularly when it comes to risk assessments.
By switching to qualitative risk assessments, where the focus is on clearly and succinctly listing potential risks alongside relevant solutions, we can enable those using the risk assessments to make better, safer decisions, and more generally create a healthier culture around safety.
For ways to simplify your risk assessments and maximise the safety of those using them, check out my blog on avoiding risk assessment bloat over on the Veritas Consulting website. If you’d like more advice on how to assess risk effectively in your business, get in touch.
PS: Here is the post on my on my LinkedIn