Are we risky enough?

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the All Blacks is the nickname for the New Zealand rugby union team. They are (apparently) statistically the most successful team in any sport. For a small country in a far flung corner of the world, this is a source of great pride. Rugby is of huge importance to the New Zealand national psyche.

2011. The final of the Rugby World Cup. The All Blacks, consistently the world’s number one team, have somehow failed to win the trophy for 24 years. This time it is on their home ground. The final is against France, a team with a history of upsetting the odds in these situations, defeating the ABs in both the 1999 and 2007 competitions. Richie McCaw, the New Zealand captain, leads the country through anguish and trauma in a game that is far closer and more uncomfortable than it ought to be. But they win and the nation rejoices.

It later emerged that McCaw played the game with a fractured foot, playing through the pain to bring the trophy home. The response to this across the fans and the media was unanimous: McCaw the brave, the warrior, the hero.

It is a well-known narrative in sport with numerous iconic photographs of players soaked in blood giving their all for the cause. But how would this play out in a workplace setting? McCaw is a professional sportsman – the pitch is his workplace and the New Zealand Rugby Union his employer. Was the regulator notified of the broken foot as required under NZ law (or possibly required – subject to interpretation)? Was the Union acting illegally in sanctioning his involvement in the knowledge that there was a high risk of worsening his injury (if they knew at the time)?

I’m not for one moment advocating greater involvement of lawyers and regulators in professional sport (please, no). But how can one workplace operate like this when another (in fact most others) puts significant time and effort into preventing any injury of any type or severity? [Many seem equally happy to bring someone back after an injury in the same way – those cynics among us may suggest that this is not necessarily for the right reasons, but that is a different discussion]

Different workplaces have different risk profiles and so require different interpretations, which is not in itself an issue. On the surface, those profiles can explain the difference in approach. There is also a degree of recognition by people in high risk occupations that they are exposing themselves to a greater extent. No-one expects a police officer or a soldier to have the same approach to risk as a bank clerk.

But those people who revere McCaw and similar heroic figures in sport, in movies, in the military, are the same people who are at work in our workplaces every day. In many cases, they also play the sport and expose themselves to similar risks in a non-work setting, albeit at a somewhat lower intensity than elite players. Although their risk profile at work may be low, their risk appetite is shaped by factors outside of work – cultural, personal and societal expectations that are much more strongly felt than their occupational equivalent. For them, an injury may be no big deal, maybe even a badge of honour.

This leads to a discrepancy between worker expectations and company expectations. The company approach is usually captured in a statement such as, “No task is so important that it is worth an injury”. The workers’ view, however, is closer to, “Sure it is. It just depends on what the task is and how big the injury is.” Breaking a foot to win a world cup is an acceptable outcome to most sports fans.

When there is a mismatch like this, the most powerful person usually prevails. In this case, the company. So the worker complies with the controls for ‘trivial’ risks, but does so unwillingly, begrudgingly and with a steadily growing disdain and resentment for all things safety. When higher risks later become apparent, the worker is less likely to fully engage in the risk management process.

We have a tendency to over-complicate risk. Most people have a reasonably well-developed appreciation of risk versus benefit for the majority of situations that they come across. We develop it through years of life experience. Most would take a significant personal risk to save a child, but not such a risk to save a cat. The problem is that this is a heuristic decision based on experience, not a carefully thought through, logical choice. It works in a broad, most-of-the-time sort of way in circumstances we recognise. When a situation that is less familiar or more complex appears, the logical muscles fail through lack of use and the heuristic ones take a guess, often getting it wrong via one or more of a whole multitude of biases that we all have (see Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahnemann).

We need to understand the risk appetite of our workers and work with them through that lens. Allow them some leeway to make their own decisions where things are familiar and generally low risk, as well as providing input in resolving higher risk issues. If we disengage them in the routine, they will not be in the right mindset to think about the non-routine and that is where the true danger lurks.

In rugby when a player is injured, the coach and the medical team will generally take their views into consideration as to whether they are fit to continue or need to be replaced. No-one knows their job and their body better than the player. But where head trauma and concussion are involved, risk is potentially higher through long-term and cumulative effects and the player may be dazed and not able to properly contribute to the decision. In this instance, different protocols have been put in place and player discretion has been removed. High risk: mandatory and specific protocols. Low risk: discretion and flexibility. If rugby can work this out, why can’t industry?

Epilogue: a test

Ask yourself a test question and be honest. If I had to rush to finish a job whose timely completion would bring in a big pay day and secure the future of the company together with the jobs of all my colleagues, what degree of injury would I be happy to sustain in my haste?

Now add in an extra factor. If losing a job could be guaranteed to lead to the stress-related suicide of a colleague, would that impact your risk appetite?

And a third. What if that colleague was a single parent with three young children?

All hypothetical of course, but these types of real life, messy factors enter into all our thinking, whether consciously or not. This makes absolute statements such as “no injury is acceptable” unsustainable in the complex world of competing priorities that is the workplace.

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