Balanced risks in society

Balanced risks in society

The Fire Service is in a dangerous business. They walk into places when we are running out. It’s their job. Tempting, perhaps, to assume that accepting danger is part of the deal. But the Fire Service Commission has the same safety responsibilities to their employees as any other employer. They just can’t walk away when the going gets tough.

In common with any emergency service, they have developed safe operating procedures (SOPs) and recognised responses for types of incident. These range from person specific safety behaviour, to broader communication, command and control structures. The purpose, (which is largely very successful), is to introduce an element of predictability and safety into day to day incident management.

As with any work place (but more so in an emergency environment), there are times when the dynamics of the situation make any SOP almost impossible to use. An example might be a person injured who is about to be overtaken by a fire, flood, chemical or similar. Do you go “by the book” and spend precious time taking all the precautions, by which time the life has been lost, or do you take a calculated risk?

The Fire Service has moved some way philosophically to express in policies how they deal with this challenge. While it may simply be a written expression of a mental decision-making process that firefighters have used for years, it is worth stating. It is the sort of concept that we believe could have relevance in safety management circles, and help to cut through some of the silly political correctness that infiltrates safety thinking.

In a nutshell, it is summed up in the Fire Service’s “Safe Person Concept”, which goes like this:

“We will risk our safety, in a very calculated manner, to protect saveable lives”

“We may risk our safety, in a very careful manner, to protect saveable property”

“We will not risk our safety for lives or property that are obviously lost”

(Before the purists burst a blood vessel, this is official Fire Service policy). The Fire Service can’t prohibit fires, chemical spills, motor vehicle accidents and floods, even if they stamp their feet and convene a Select Committee, so they have to have a balanced way to deal with risk.

But what has balanced risk got to do with everyday occupational safety? We believe that the important shift in thinking is in taking a little bit of risk management away from the safety engineers and desk specialists and transferring it to where it belongs – the people at risk. After all, we can theorise all day and do lovely risk analysis, but what matters at the pointy end – the moment when the accident happens – is the behaviour and choices made by one or more individual employees.

It seems that our current approach to safety (worldwide) is to remove individual decision making. That’s not a balanced risk approach. “The end always justifies the means”. “Society” or governments believe that every accident represents an opportunity to ban, prohibit, censor, control, remove and restrict. Conventional wisdom (quite rightly) assumes that all accidents are preventable. Where it goes a bit wrong is in the next step – the justifying of reactive, broad brush solutions. For example, if fireworks injure a number of children, fireworks must be bad, therefore the solution is: “Ban fireworks”.

I can hear the self righteous screams and snorts as I write. Children getting hurt is indefensible. I should be ashamed of myself! But the point is that the rule-makers are increasingly short-cutting individual responsibility in the name of safety. It is, of course their moral duty!

Failure to be seen to respond or have compassion would lose elections and Commissioners would lose their jobs. So we get fireworks bans, cultural safety instructions, smokers forced to pollute the open air (I love that experience of rounding a street corner and inserting my face into a cloud of freshly exhaled smoke. At least before, you could shut the door on them).

I used to joke that the government had inserted the thin end of the wedge and that they would be telling us what to eat next. The tolerant pragmatists (who have yet to reach my cynical status of Grumpy Old Man), scoffed at me. But recently, lunatic green politicians have been mooting the idea that the government needs to prohibit fast food companies luring fat children (with fatter parents) to their untimely deaths from heart disease. Much as we would love to see healthier children, and much as we may dislike some marketing strategies, where are we going as a society if governments sincerely believe they have the duty to interfere to this level of detail in our lives?

Alcohol must be next on the list, and while we’re at it, let’s ban cars, because of their heavy social cost. Oh yes, that’s right, this is already well under way in Auckland, with plans to chastise and cajole us out of our vehicles and onto non-existent public transport. But I digress, that’s not a safety issue. You can’t crash and burn at 1 kilometre an hour.

How did the human race arrive at this hideous place in its development?

Surely, at some point we have to consider not only the responsible majority, but also empower individuals to take more responsibility for their own safety. Balanced risk. There are too many examples of situations that we cannot plan for. A combination of events. An unforeseen glitch. Sure, we have to learn from these events, but wouldn’t it be useful too if we encouraged just a bit of individual responsibility?

We certainly do need procedures and laws and standards and they have their place. But we are taking creativity and decision making away from individuals. There’s no point in complaining about stupid employee behaviour if all we do is progressively remove their level of choice. It’s more choice we need, not less. This is difficult. It’s about people being educated so that they make the choice to work safely. I’m not promoting laissez faire, just a healthy balanced risk.

Example: I just read about a truck driver who was lifting a heavy load onto his truck and it got caught. In freeing it, he left the tension on the crane, so when it released, it swung and crushed him. Bet that isn’t in any trucking company’s SOP. Naughty employer, take a large fine.

But, with all due respect to the poor driver, I bet he knew there was tension on the lifting gear and he just thought “one quick tug and we’ll be away”. He probably took a risk. Yes, the employer has to be looked at carefully to see if they could have prevented it, but that’s too late. Maybe, just maybe, some accidents could be avoided if individuals were better trained to consider the consequences and were more averse to risk.

Time after time, I have assisted employers to implement safety systems and seen a gradual change in the workplace. The environment improves, the culture changes and accident rates plummet. Not because we concentrated on specific accident types and causes, or because we set rules, but because behaviour changed from an attitude of “Everything is the boss’s problem”, to one where people started to understand that there were acceptable balanced risks AND that everyone had some accountability for their own safety.

Happily, many employers find this balance. But the trend is towards Big Brother and it bothers me. We all sit back and let dull, unimaginative people, who are bereft of any significant creative skill, to pontificate endlessly about how they know what’s best for us. I’m sorry to say that many safety practitioners fall into this category and it’s all a bit depressing.

Well, at least I’m a volunteer firefighter. Now and again, I can therefore take balanced risks. The Fire Service says so. Yay to that!


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