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‘Risk creep’ should be a concern for all OHS managers: Keynote

By Amanda Silliker
Bruce Kirkby

People tend to miss creeping change, change that occurs slowly over time, which is a health and safety concern, according to Bruce Kirkby, keynote speaker at the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering conference.

“We tend to think we can deal with it, we can deal with it, we can deal with it, but we can’t,” Kirkby told the 900 delegates at the Vancouver conference on Sept. 19. “So much of the change in our world is creeping change, and when to intervene is the modern challenge.”

The “creeping effect” is prevalent in dangerous environments especially because near misses are often categorized as successes, said Kirkby, a Canadian adventurer, photographer and writer who is widely recognized for extended expeditions to remote wilderness areas.

And this effect worsens with experience.

“The longer we are exposed to a danger or a hazard, the more accustomed we become to it, in a sense,” said Kirkby. “So that is one of the challenges of an experienced workforce… We think the more experience we have, the safer we are.”

The “expert halo” is another phenomenon safety managers need to keep in mind. Kirkby told delegates a story about 16 expert skiers who went backcountry skiing. Twenty-three seconds after they hit the mountain, three were dead. In the post-mortem, the survivors all said something just didn’t feel right but they went ahead anyway, largely due to the “expert halo,” said Kirkby.

“They all were like: ‘Well, I am just a freestyle athlete, the judge is going to know for sure.’ And the judge is thinking, ‘I would never go on a day like this but the locals are going.’ And the locals are thinking, ‘Wow we would never drop into this but the ski patrollers are going to go, I guess we have been too conservative.’ And everyone pushed it off to someone else,” he said, noting that a group of four or more will always make a riskier decision than a smaller group.

This should really resonate with safety managers and encourage them to remind their workforce that every voice counts.

“There needs to be a way to facilitate every voice, without judgement. Everyone needs to be able to speak,” said Kirkby. “Because had any one of those 16 spoken up, they might have saved three lives at that moment, but they were too worried about what the others would think.”

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