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Check your ‘canaries’ to keep risk tolerance down

Risk tolerance should be a constant value, but it is often just an attitude or priority, and work priorities change.

If you hear excuses such as “we didn’t know that, we didn’t see that, this is not normal”, be worried that risk tolerance is rising. If you hear excuses like “this is how we work, never had a problem, can’t do everything by the book”, be afraid, for risk tolerance had changed.

When I started working as a metallurgist at BHP in Newcastle, NSW, Australia steelworks in 1980, one of the first departments I was assigned to was the blast furnace. This was a high risk work area and people have died there.

In those days one of the occupational classifications at the steelworks was that of a gas watcher, who carried around a cage and occasionally cleaned it. In it was a yellow canary. If the bird fell of the perch, emergency evacuations followed.

It was meant to detect gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane. The songful bird would stop singing as an early warning.

One of my tasks each morning was to visit the Stove Cabin (control room) of each of the four blast furnaces and collect the monitoring records of the previous evening. In each Stove Cabin, just to the left of the door, was a cage with a little yellow canary.

These birds did not have a “watcher” assigned to them, but everyone checked in on them. One morning between Christmas and New Year 1980 I entered the Stove Cabin after the shift foreman. He came barreling out past me, almost knocking me over.

“Clear off! The bird!” I followed his lead and ran for it. The canary was lying feet up in the cage. It turned out to be a rare false alarm. How many canaries do you need at work?

Frogs do not respond
Another behavioural type is more common at work; frogs. You have all heard the story. If you place a frog in tepid water and slowly bring it to boil, the frog will at first delay jumping out, until it no longer can jump.

We do not notice if the environment slowly becomes toxic, approaching deadly. How many frogs do you have at work? Risk tolerance itself is a toxic process.

I have lost count of the Transformational Safety Culture walkabouts I have conducted and mentioned a potential hazard to my host. In at least two thirds of these situations the response is “didn’t know” or “didn’t see”.

Some of these hazards or risks have been significant; uncovered or unlabelled confined spaces, working at height using visibly frayed or cut fall protection equipment, and so on.

Another common response to management is “defending the frog”. When we conduct quantitative Safety Culture Reviews, among the common responses are various kinds of denial.

I hear stuff like “that can’t be right, we would have seen it or felt it”. You may find that over half of your workforce acknowledge multiple shortcuts, but their autonomic response is “no, that can’t be happening, that is not normal”. These are the frogs croaking.

Seek out fore-warnings of risk tolerance. Forewarned can be forearmed. Watch and listen to your canaries on site. Conduct an empirical analysis of the safety culture functioning beneath the surface of your workplace.

David G Broadbent is a safety psychologist and founder of TransformationalSafety.Com, based in Australia, with clients in SA and Asia.

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