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How to change risk perception and prevent accidents

A key principle of risk reduction is that hazards should be designed-out and, if this is not possible, control measures should be implemented so as to reduce the probability of an accident occurring and/or the severity of the consequences. However, it has been said that the only safe factory is the one that contains no people, and this works against the requirement for a company to make profits.

Given that factories do contain people, we have to consider the two causes of accidents: unsafe conditions and unsafe acts. Most accidents are caused by unsafe acts, though people causing accidents through unsafe acts are not the problem but a consequence - or symptom - of the problem. Traditional health and safety management relies on risk assessments then, effectively, a set of prescriptive rules that state 'you must do this' and you must not do that' - but with little or no explanation of the underlying reasons. Shifting the focus to the potential consequences of an accident has a dramatic impact on behaviour and, therefore, accident statistics, as we will see below.

Any risk assessment is subject to the 'perception of risk' in the eyes of the individual undertaking the risk assessment. While the information available to different individuals is the same, those individuals can perceive surprisingly different levels of risk.

But what do we mean by 'perception'? Perception is the psychological function that enables individuals to receive and process information about their environment. When decisions are needed, past experiences are called upon, even if only subconsciously. However, if the present circumstances do not match the past experiences, then accidental behaviour occurs.

Consider the example of the A15 road from Scunthorpe to Lincoln. This is an old Roman road and is therefore very straight. It is also designated a 'Red Route' and from January to November 2007 there were 78 fatalities. There are several reasons for this high number, but some relate to the perception of risk

For example, if you were driving from Scunthorpe to Lincoln at 50-60mph and you came upon a lorry driving at 40mph you might consider overtaking it. Looking down the side of the lorry you can see there is no oncoming traffic, plus you know how quickly your car accelerates, the length of the lorry and the distance you will need to get past. By making a quick mental risk assessment you may decide that it is safe to pass.

But when you are alongside the lorry you realise that it is following two other lorries, with insufficient space between the lorries for you to pull in between them. The lorries are unlikely to let you in, so you continue to accelerate to pass all three. By the time you reach the front of the lead lorry your speed is excessive, then a car coming in the opposite direction crests the brow of a hill at 60mph and the resulting collision has an impact speed of 120-150mph. People in both cars will almost certainly be killed.

Now if the A15 were rebuilt to remove the hills, left- and right-hand turns were closed, lorries were banned, and there were no police cars or speed cameras, you might choose to drive much faster. Why? Because you think there are no reasons not to. But if the speed limit were reduced to 50mph and a speed camera installed, you would certainly drive at 50mph (at least past the speed camera) because you know that you will otherwise receive three points on your licence and a £60 fine. This is not life-threatening, just an inconvenience, yet the guaranteed consequences are embedded in our psyche. If the camera is modified so that it only photographs one in every 1000 speeding cars, most people will still pass it at 50mph, even though the odds are 1000:1.

The example above may seem extreme, but how many times have you used a hammer to hit a chisel without hitting your hand? And how many times have you carried things up a ladder without falling off? A lot less than 1000 times, yet we do not see these as real risks. Do we really have to see blood before we learn? A survey undertaken in America to compare workplace deaths and length of time in service showed that the highest incidence of fatalities is at 17 years' service. The reason for this is complacency.

Risk assessments have traditionally focused on prescriptive controls placed upon employees with little or no explanation. But compliance is greatly increased if personnel are educated about the reasons for controls and the consequences of their actions. To make a real difference to accident statistics, we need to approach the controls from a different perspective.

Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence (ABC) analysis shows that focusing on the consequences of an accident rather than the antecedents that drive or stimulate the behaviour give more success in modifying the behaviour. Consequences that are positive (P), important (I), now (N) and certain (C) are far more powerful than those that are in the future (F), unimportant (U), negative (N) or doubtful (D).

Returning to the car example, if you are driving and there are three passengers, there might be one in the back who is not wearing a seatbelt. His argument is that he is the only one at risk and he will not be injured (PINC), plus he will arrive safely without it (PINC), he will be comfortable without wearing it (PINC), and, as far as being corrected for not wearing it, he believes the consequences are important, negative, now, but very doubtful.

To change this behaviour we need to educate back seat passengers so that the perception of arriving safely without wearing a seatbelt changes from certain to doubtful, the perception of not being injured changes from certain to doubtful, and the perception of being corrected changes from doubtful to certain.

A road safety video from Ireland shows four people in a car, three with seat belts and one rear seat passenger without. The car is involved in a head-on collision, whereupon the unsecured passenger flies forward, killing the two people in the front. The car is then struck from behind, sending the individual back into the other rear seat passenger, killing them as well.

This advertisement had a tremendous effect in changing the perception of arriving safely and not being injured. But, most importantly, it focuses on other people being injured and killed. This effectively places three policemen in the car to enforce the wearing of the belts. Incidentally, taxi drivers seldom wear seat belts, so never sit in the front seat of a taxi.

Within a manufacturing environment there are plenty of areas where changing the perception of risk can prevent accidents, whether that relates to trailing cables across a floor, climbing steps while carrying things, or overriding machine safeguards during maintenance operations. Using the ABC analysis we can see what needs to be changed in order to correct unacceptable behaviour. And changing the perception of risk by focusing on the consequences leads to correction by peers - for example, workmates telling an operative not to override a guard switch - which is far more effective than correction by authority (such as a bland written statement from a health and safety manager to the effect that interfering with safety equipment is prohibited).

Corus Northern Engineering Services (CNES) has developed a successful training programme to give Corus and external customers the tools required to make dramatic improvements to the behaviour of employees. For more information about this, telephone Nick O'Hara on +44 (0)1642 498041 or email cnes@corusgroup.com.

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