Two sides to every control

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI 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.


  1. Andy Haydon Reply

    I agree. Many times I have facilitated sessions with people doing risk assessments and I am continually amazed how, as humans we all think that we are right. In fact the brain doesn’t like to think that it is wrong. Someone at BP would have said something like “No, knives will be dangerous, people might cut themselves!” If said by a person with the authority to make it stick few would argue’ behold, we have created ‘No Knives Policy’. When my teams do that I throw something at them out of left field, like ‘what will that approach achieve, examine every scenario that could occur if we go with that’. Its significant how often we don’t challenge processes that don’t deliver common sense outcomes, which is a line that many OHS people get thrown at them often. (By the way, hadn’t they heard of Swiss army knives). But as I said, I agree. Facilitating group risk assessments exposes the inherent power structures within a group. If the safety ‘professional’ convinces the group of their risk control idea and it’s wrong and noone argues then we have the kind of outcome the article describes. As a manager once said to me with no hint of humour “it doesn’t matter if we do it wrong as long as we all do it wrong together”. I think I’ll read that book, thanks

  2. Les Henley Reply

    Hi Zinta, I’m not certain but I think a significant element of the ‘risk assessment’ approach is often forgotten or not followed through.
    This may be a contributor to the issue you used to illustrate your article – no knives available to cut the rope because there was fear that people would cut themselves (knives also become significant weapons in an oil rig environment where people are ‘captive’ together and tempers can flare rapidly).
    The element I’m referring to is: once options to control a risk are identified, and the preferred option(s) are selected for implementaiton, there should be a review to understand if the selected option(s) will introduce new hazards or affect risk in other aspects of the workplace.
    (I almost wrote ‘obviously’ here but realised this is the same as ‘its common sense’)- this element actually requires an ‘iterative’ process to review how one decision will affect other situations before the decision is implemented. It stands to reason that this approcah could then tie an organisation in knots and no decisions get implemented. But I beleive that all decisions taken in this way should at least review implications for emergency response/management as, whenever something unexpected happens, the emergency response process is how we ‘adapt’ to an unexpected/uncontrolled event.

  3. Zinta Satins Post author Reply

    Hi Les, I guess you could rephrase ‘considering whether a control will introduce new hazards’ to ‘thinking about whether a control will restrict ability to adapt’. That is, the inability to adapt is the hazard. While it may take a little longer to decide on which course of action to take (in some cases this may be to not implement the control) at least it will be a balanced discussion. I have also found that it is not only in emergency situations that something unexpected happens. Unexpected things also happen during ‘normal’ operation.

  4. Les Henley Reply

    Hi again Zinta.
    On the basis that ‘ability to adapt’ will vary from person to person as a ‘human difference’ (something else we need to consider along with physiological and psychological differences when managing risks), we need to recognise that we do have people in organisations who for various reasons (youth, lack of exposure/new to the industry, intellectual capacity, etc) will not be capable of adapting in some situations anyway.
    For example – if we don’t teach our children to cross a busy road following a standardised approach ‘look right, look left, look right again and if the road is clear cross over’ they may never get the chance to adapt. They have an inherent ‘handicap’ in that their spacial awareness, in the form of perception and judgment of speed and proximity, are still developing.

    Similarly in workplaces, we need to establish standardised approaches to managing known risks for those who may not be able to recognise them and or judge them accurately. And how will the risks become known unless we work to identify them.

    What you refer to as ‘normal’ operations are essentially standardised procedures (whether formalised in writing or informally adopted). An unexpected thing (in the law referred to as ‘unforeseen’) happening may well not allow those affected to ‘adapt’. But when it’s happened once, it should no longer be ‘unexpected’ or ‘unforeseen’ and the standardised process should then be ‘adapted’ to cope with the newly identified condition/risk for all future ‘normal’ operations.
    I agree we need to allow for some degree of initiative and risk taking, but we also need to protect those who are not (yet) equipped to use initiative or take risk safely. That’s why the concept of consultation is such a positive aspect of our WHS laws – more people with different knoweldeg, experience and perspective bring different things to light in the way we approach ‘risk management’.
    Even stunt workers and ‘daredevils’ undergo significant risk analyses with their actvities BEFORE committing to them.

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