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What is safe?

I have been involved with various aspects of safety for many years providing information to individuals and groups to assist them in making informed decisions on safety concerns. The information has been as varied as the individual issues, and during this entire time, I have made one observation that is constant: Everyone’s perception of safety differs depending on their personal experiences. The perception of high risk to an ironworker differs vastly from an office worker. While formal or informal education and training, including on-the-job training or otherwise, helps us in decision-making processes, it is life experiences that form our thought processes.

People often ask me what it is I do and my answer is “80 per cent public relations and dealing with people.” The greatest challenge of the safety person is not keeping up with changes or knowing what act, regulation or standard a specific issue must comply with — although that certainly can be challenging — it’s dealing with people’s perception of safety.

Most professional development for safety practitioners has some mention of how to assess hazard areas and measure risk. This often includes risk assessments, inspections, matrixes and charts. While all of this has value, what is not usually included is perception of safety. Safety people are challenged every day on “What is safe?” The people that are challenging us are from all levels in the chain of command from a specific company we work for, general contractor’s personnel, enforcement, other safety people and students if we are teaching etc. So being challenged as to “what is safe” we cannot simply respond with “Because I said so” or use a definition or matrix from a course. The reasoning behind this is the safety perception of individuals is routed deep in their beliefs from their past — not yours. So people’s personal or life experiences have formed a definition as to what is safe in their world long before you as the safety person came along. For those that like to have a definition this concept is known as “risk tolerance.”

I will caution on the use of definitions. I use them with the understanding that definitions are themselves a perception of someone’s interpretation of the meaning of a word or event. Acts and regulations across the country can certainly attest to that! I have to realize, in dealing with people, a particular definition may seem appropriate to me.

So, when approached for an answer on safety, we have what would appear to be two opposing elements. When asked the seemingly unanswerable question of “What is safe?” we have the person’s predisposed level of risk tolerance and the safety person’s notion of safe. The tendency is to fall back on a specific regulation or standard. This may be a fine answer to the black and white questions, such as what needs to be on the documents for proof of training for zoom booms? (This is usually a training card but could be any type of documentation as the standard does not say the format of the documentation only the trainee shall be provided with a document).

You then refer to the CSA Standard B354.4-02 Self-Propelled Boom-Supported, Elevating Work Platforms, section 7.3 Proof of Training, and CSA tells you what must be on the document for proof of training. OK easy one, you have looked up the current standard, quoted the requirement and feel pretty good on this one. The fact is this question did not require a decision to be made. You just had to know where to get the information and relay it to the appropriate person.

The next day you have a different question that does not have a direct reference that you can quote. You have a work situation which falls within the parameters of all the applicable standards but you feel there is the potential for injury, of course we all know everything has some level of risk. You would like to add a process for what you feel would further minimize the risk but you get resistance with the often-used phrase “Everything has risk and this is the way we do it!” This is what I referred to as the risk tolerance of the individual or organization.

So now what? Safety people often fall back on trying to explain due diligence sometimes adding a recent court decision. This may have the desired outcome depending on the relationship between the safety person and workers or it may have a negative effect on the team.

While I do not have an answer to “What is safe?” what I will pass on is this: Before attempting to persuade individuals to change, make an effort to understand their culture and beliefs when it comes to risk tolerance or their perception of what is safe. Have a discussion with them and listen to their concerns and views. Have them suggesting the improvements.

Dave Gouthro

Dave Gouthro is a health and safety consultant working with clients primarily in the construction industry. He develops new programs for certification, carries out safety audits and assists clients with their occupational health and safety needs. Additional areas of expertise include incident investigation, training development and presentations for industry. He is a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP), Certified Health and Safety Consultant (CHSC) and Construction Health and Safety Officer (CHSO). He is also on the editorial advisory board for COS.
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