I have been reading a thought-provoking book, Adapt (Why success always starts with failure) by Tim Harford. While it isn’t a book on safety there is much to learn from Tim. He argues that today’s challenges simply cannot be tackled with ready-made solutions and expert opinion. The world has become far too unpredictable, and profoundly complex. Tim argues that instead we must learn to adapt.
He uses many real life events, strategies and organisations to illustrate his argument – climate change, Iraq war, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Lehman Brothers, Deal or No Deal, guppies in Venezuela, and so on. But the case study that caught my eye was Deepwater Horizon, and not for the reasons you may think.
As many of us know Deepwater Horizon disaster came to be known the worst environmental disaster in American history and resulted in the loss of eleven lives. We also know that it has been studied in the hope of understanding how it happened and what lessons can be learnt. It was interesting to read from Tim’s perspective. And it was the first lesson that caught my eye – safety systems often fail. When a rescue boat went to tow a life raft away from the burning rig, it found that the life raft was tied to the rig by a safety line. Transocean, the rig’s operator, banned crew from carrying knives. As Tim points out, the rescue boat and the life raft found themselves attached to the blazing oil rig by an interacting pair of safety precautions. (The safety line was eventually severed and the crew rescued).
And it got me thinking. What if, when considering safety controls, we not only consider how effective they will be in reducing risk? What if we also consider, how will they impact the ability to adapt? For example, if knives are banned to reduce the risk of people cutting themselves, to what degree will this constrain people’s ability to adapt? Which is the greater trade-off?
This idea is not necessarily new. ISO 31000 defines risk as ‘the effect of uncertainty on objectives’. It also includes the concept that an event can generate a range of consequences that can have both positive and negative effects on objectives. If you believe that adaptation can have a positive effect on the objective of achieving success, then assessing the impact of safety controls on the ability to adapt makes perfect sense.
I strongly believe that the current approach to risk assessments is not a good place to start when considering how to support success. But for many people a risk assessment is the starting point for safety management. As Ben Kirkbride commented on Don’t walk the talk, unleashing new safety concepts on managers and supervisors is not necessarily the best way to achieve change. But in the same way that a change in safety language may subtly change a manager’s thinking, so too may adding another aspect to risk assessments. I don’t know how this would look but it would include discussion about whether the ability for people to adapt is reduced with the implementation of controls. And who knows, it may be the first step to evolving the risk management approach in its entirety.