How to Manage Safety Risk Tolerance in the Workplace

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How to Manage Safety Risk Tolerance in the Workplace

Workers take risks for many different reasons. And any safety manager can tell you that some people are more prone to risky behavior than others. But what causes employees to knowingly do something unsafe at work and what can you do about it?
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By M.B. Sutherland, Sr. Copywriter, Magid

Workers take risks for many different reasons. And any safety manager can tell you that some people are more prone to risky behavior than others. But what causes employees to knowingly do something unsafe at work and what can you do about it?

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What is risk tolerance?

Risk tolerance is a worker recognizing a potential hazard and deciding how to proceed—safely or unsafely. Sometimes workers fail to recognize a danger due to lack of information, experience, or proper training. But perhaps more often, they recognize the hazard and decide to expose themselves or others to it. You can get a picture of an employee’s risk profile by looking at a combination of their:

Risk Perception + Risk Tolerance
ability to assess how perilous an action
(or inaction) is
willingness to accept the danger
they perceive

Why do workers take risks?

Unfortunately, many of the things that make workers more likely to take chances are rooted in simple human nature. If we take a risk and nothing bad happens, we tend to take that same gamble again. And the more often that happens, the higher our risk tolerance becomes.

How do I discourage risky behavior at work?

Research from the Campbell Institute tells us that you can influence your employees’ risk tolerance at any of three levels:

Image of organizational and leadership teams discouraging risk tolerance for safety.

LEVEL 1: Reducing Risk Tolerance at the Organizational &
Leadership Level

The most effective way to tackle overconfidence is by building a solid safety culture that discourages excessive risk. If workers know they’ll be penalized for cutting safety corners, even if it’s for a perceived good reason, they’ll think twice before taking chances to speed production. Your safety culture and the example you set can have a significant influence on workers’ risk-taking behavior. Do they see you wearing all the correct PPE? Do they truly know that safety is the top priority – higher than production or profit? Studies show that an atmosphere of safety leadership and a sense of belonging to an organization tend to produce workers who are less willing to take risks on the job.

Focus on building a culture of empowerment that allows any employee to call a production stop if they see a problem or to take five minutes to ensure that the right steps are being followed for safety. Remember that your credibility can be blown if they see you skip PPE for convenience or push them to work at a dangerous pace for an important project. Encourage your workers to participate in your Safety Committee so they know you hear them and they feel personally invested in safety decisions.

Image of team members discouraging risk tolerance for safety.

LEVEL 2: Reducing Risk Tolerance at the Team Level

Peer pressure doesn’t stop in high school, and you can use it to influence positive outcomes. Do your people see their team members following the rules, or has your workplace fallen victim to the spread of bad habits? Do workers encourage each other to be safe every day, or do they feel pressure to look tough? The behavior of team members has a strong influence on their willingness to take risks.

Teach your team to look out for each other’s safety by assigning mentors to new hires and training your team to avoid Normalization of Deviance. Plan time in your safety meetings for workers to share stop stories – or talk about times when they were able to recognize and avoid a hazard. Finally, set up a system of rewarding workers who spot hazards, share ideas to improve safety, or follow all of their safety protocols including wearing the right PPE. Getting everyone involved and leveraging peer pressure for positive behavior instead of risk-taking can help get your whole team on the right page for safety.

Image of how to discourage risk tolerance on the individual level.

LEVEL 3: Reducing Risk Tolerance at the Individual Level

Do your more experienced workers feel overconfident in their ability to handle an incident? Research says the answer is almost certainly yes! Have your workers had personal experience with an injury? A worker’s knowledge and training can help them to understand hazards, but for some workers a feeling of competence and confidence can actually work against them if it gives them a feeling of invincibility.

The best solution at this level, beyond immersing every worker in a culture of safety, is training, training, and more training. Be sure your workers understand workplace dangers and how to recognize and assess them. Traditional classroom training is a great place to start, but be sure you’re not leaving it at that. Everyday forms of training and reminders are a crucial part of making safety lessons stick. Use all the tools in your arsenal including:

Be sure to keep lines of communication open with each of your workers so they feel comfortable coming to you with concerns. Have smaller safety meetings to encourage people to speak up and debrief with your team after an incident or near-miss to talk through what went wrong and what contributed to the safety breakdown.

We're all individuals, and some of us are more safety-minded than others. But a realistic approach to hazards, coupled with the knowledge that poor decisions directly impact everyone, can give you a solid start on minimizing risk tolerance on the job.

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