Monday, October 14, 2013

Personal Risk Assessment – Over-estimating personal capabilities

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on personal risk assessment. Read the series introduction here.

Way back in time I had the distinct opportunity to join a military service branch and go through the boot camp experience.  “Young and stupid,” physical fitness at its peak, “10 feet tall and bullet proof” – all these and other attributes, like adrenaline and testosterone, made each of us raw recruits confident we could take on the world and come out unscathed.  It didn’t take very long for me to realize I needed far more than personal confidence and physical fitness to come out of the Marine Corps unscathed.  Just having confidence in my ability would not keep me safe and uninjured in the real world dangers of the military profession.  Common sense, personal responsibility, team work, training and attention to situational reality were absolute must-haves – it was drilled into us daily.

As the new recruits come into your organization they encounter dangers with which they are not familiar.  They are likely to be over-confident in their personal abilities and underestimate the dangers of the job at hand.  And like all new employees they are a high-risk reality trying very hard to prove their worth on the job with a ‘get ‘er done’ attitude.  The young and vigorous can lift more and work longer in challenging environments and they often feel a need to prove this to themselves and others. When it comes time to correct this behavior, challenging these workers’ ego and pride does not seem to work all that well.

There is a second class of employees who also suffer from over-confidence in their capabilities; the older, experienced hands who know the job and the dangers and take shortcuts they believe they can achieve without injury because of their personal experience factor.  After all, they have been on the job for years and this is just the way their work group operates, it is their norm.  And norms are very hard to change. So is the personal risk assessment culture they live.  They just don’t seem to see or comprehend the dangers they have ignored and lived with all those years.

My papa had a saying that went something like; “Change only occurs when the pain of no change exceeds the pain of change.”  Recently I was working with an electrical utility company.  The previous week a contractor for them had two of its employees free climbing a tower like they always did, instead of using the slower required fall protection.  The upper employee fell and took his friend down with him, about 120 feet to their deaths.  During a training break two linemen described how each of them had done a similar free climb and fell about 40 feet in separate events.  Obviously and amazingly, both survived, but more than a decade later both still suffer from pains associated with their injuries. Both were able to go back to climbing towers, but the pain of no change had them always using fall protection equipment and taking the time to do so.

How to handle over-estimating personal capabilities?  The young studs don’t handle personal challenges from superiors well at all.  The seasoned hands don’t believe they will ever roll snake eyes.  Both seem to charge blindly on in hopes that they will never walk off the end of the cliff they know is out there.

In military culture, there are rules and you must follow them. In safety we often call these rules of engagement JSAs (Job Safety Analysis).  JSAs must be well written and have the practical field content that gives them credibility with the people who are performing the tasks.  They must be practiced and trained by the field hands doing the job every day, for every job to which the JSAs apply.  Supervision and upper management must consistently, visibly and frequently reinforce the importance of these rules of engagement being followed.  There must be a culture of correct which is lived every day on the job so no one is put at risk of dying on the job any day.  It goes something like; “I don’t care if you are in such good shape you can lift 200 pounds.  For this company, no matter where you are working you will get assistance lifting anything weighing more than 50 pounds.”   There are similar rules of engagement in this kind of ‘culture of correct’ for each personal risk that the job at hand may present.

One of the struggles with living this culture of correct deals with how we consistently give the verbal feedback that effectively delivers this message.  Another policy or procedure is not the answer; physical presence and adult conversations do a much better job, and this theme will be followed on and added to as the personal risk assessment series continues.  I look forward to your input.

The Doc


  1. Good article. Well used attention grabbers. We can all learn a thing or two from this. Sometimes we are pushed to accelerate to get a task completed or even to add the additional safety restraints. What we all must realize if even though we have made a pay check for ourselves or companies, fatalities and injuries take away any money or profits gained. Think, Think, Think about the task you will be involved in. Ask yourself these question; am I going to be able to do the job productively and safely with the PPE that I have or do I need more, and is it damaged to the point it needs replaced. Personal safety should be our number 1 priority. Speak up would your boss risk his life for improper procedures, if he or she would, then they need replaced.
    Chris Hicks
    Safety Supervisor

  2. I certainly agree that older workers can be difficult to work with. The only effective means I have found to begin the process of changing those behaviors is consistent observation/follow up. Catching them defying policies and stopping them from continuing dangerous behaviors (with or without punitive measures) will yield better results than simply telling them what to do. They have to own it and accept that change is needed, particularly if the worker is in a mentoring role. Conversation, observation, repeat as needed. Examples of bad things that happened to other people only go so far if the worker(s) in question don't personalize that experience for themselves. Safety happens in the field, not at the Safety Coordinator's desk.

  3. Doc, you are absolutely 100% spot on! In the field, teaching, talking, encouraging and correcting the behaviors is what is effective. I've seen it over and over again...and it works.

  4. If you go to hire people, do you require them to contact a safety services company too? I just think that in a company where there might be some risk, they might want to have a way to get extra protection.

  5. Doc, Over estimating capability and experience (one of the Ten Influencing Factors for Risk Tolerance) can be a challenge to address. The strategy you proposed is an excellent way of addressing the young worker who may over estimate their strength or agility, specifically "This is how it is down on this work site and we expect you to set the example for other workers who may be watching and learning from you". This same stategy works well for the experienced worker who may be over estimating their experience as the tool to keep them safe. A simple question to these experienced workers may be "Is this how you would teach your son or daughter to do this task?". This will trigger reflection on the right way and then following up with reinforcement of the right way will be a step in creating the work place culture that is desired. And that's what Safety Culture World is all about ... right?

    Dave Fennell, Imperial Oil


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