How to Spot Risk and Stay Alive

How to Spot Risk and Stay Alive

A safety professional may read the title of this article and feel it’s child’s play. How could somebody not know how to look for risk? That same safety professional may even be tempted to use a phrase that I cannot stand: common sense. I once heard a speaker explain that common sense is a learned phenomenon. We cull the experiences of our life and, from them, develop our so-called common sense. This is very true. If I spent my entire career reaching into a machine that wasn’t locked-out and nothing happened to me, I may believe that doing so was safe. This is the experience that develops my common sense.

Can You Rely on Common Sense?

That same scenario may seem like a lack of common sense to somebody who knows better, but we’re assuming that I have no other education or experience to help me come to a better conclusion. Of course, this example is extreme; it would also require that I had no experience or knowledge to let me know that rollers, gears, or blades were dangerous. The point of the matter is this: common sense is different for everybody, and therefore cannot be relied upon.

It’s important for safety professionals to realize that what seems like second-nature to us now, didn’t always. The fact that we can walk onto a construction site or a manufacturing floor and immediately begin pointing out unsafe conditions and practices stems from years of education and experience. When I first began in the industry, I could barely tell one piece of heavy equipment from another, let alone start pointing out problems. It took time to develop that particular skill set.

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

To understand where a non-safety professional may be coming from, we need to put ourselves back in their shoes. Maybe you can’t remember what it was like before you knew safety so well, so instead, think of a time more recently when you had to visit a new facility or, worse yet, a new industry with which you were not used to dealing. Sure, there are things that carry over from facility to facility, from industry to industry, but most likely there were things there you had yet to understand – new machines, new procedures, new tasks. The first thing you needed to do was learn what those machines, procedures and tasks were. You needed to find out where the exposures were and how those exposures should be controlled.

The Importance of Risk Assessment

Yes, that’s right, you did a Job Hazard Analysis (JHA) or whatever preferred acronym you use for a risk assessment. Whether you stopped and did this on paper or you ran through it in your head, you went through a very methodical process. The problem is that you went through this process because it is a part of your training and background. Not so for your line employees, your laborers, or even members of management. Their inherent focus may be, “How do I properly operate this equipment?”, “What is the most efficient way to operate this?” or even “This is a piece of cake, so I guess I no longer need to pay attention,” not necessarily, “Where and why is this dangerous?”

Don’t Fish for Them, Teach a Them to Fish

It is important to instruct your employees that assessing risk is an important part of their job, not just something that is done for them . Train them on the proper way to perform a JHA. This should include running through some practice assessments and reviewing the existing assessments for your facility. When you see workers on the floor or jobsite, ask them what hazards are presented by their job and what they – or the company - have done to reduce their exposure. This is no time to be protective of your job and skills. You want everybody thinking like you do when you walk into a work area because you cannot be everywhere at once. If the employees can’t tell you what hazards their job presents and what controls are in place, then how can they possibly be aware if those controls or the precautions that they are supposed to be taking are effective?

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Do you remember - as a child - doing those “What’s wrong with this picture?” puzzles? That’s how I approach every site or facility I enter. Consider the original picture – your frame of reference – to be the OSHA regulations, your company procedures, and your general knowledge of what is safe or unsafe. This original picture is how everything should be, in a perfect world. Next, you have the altered picture – the one with things missing, backwards, changed, whatever. This is reality. This is the facility or jobsite you’ve walked into. Having the first page in hand makes it easy to spot the problems, but what if you didn’t have that first page? What if you hadn’t known exactly how it should be, or had only gotten a quick glance? Now it becomes harder to see the problems. Our jobs must include giving our supervisors and workforce that first page – that frame of reference from which to work.

Do You Have the Right Picture?

To achieve this, they must understand the OSHA regulations that apply to their work, but just citing them chapter and verse helps only a little bit. They need to know how those regulations apply to what they do and be able to use them to help identify hazards. This is what the goal of a good OSHA 10 or 30 hour Outreach course should be – hazard identification. If you’re sitting through a class with an instructor that is just trying to cram as much of the CFR text down your throat as he or she can do in 10 or 30 hours, then your instructor has not been trained well and you have wasted your money. A good course teaches you the regulations and how to recognize if things are not right.

Now Do a Gut Check!

Finally, tell your people to trust their gut. No, common sense isn’t always good, but if something feels wrong to someone, most likely it is wrong, even if they’re not sure why. Tell them to take the time to find out why they feel this way or to get somebody with more experience or knowledge who can review it for them. In order for this to be successful, your company must be receptive to workers doing this. If every time a worker approaches a supervisor with a concern they hear “Just get back to work,” they will quickly stop trying to raise issues. Yet, if your company encourages this, eventually those same employees will begin to know why they feel something is wrong and, most likely, begin to be able to fix problems themselves, where possible.

Experience, knowledge, and good training, with good coaching along the way will help your employees get to a point where spotting risks is child’s play. It won’t happen overnight, but every day that passes is another day they’ve gotten better at it and another day they’ve stayed alive.

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