Employee Risk Taking

How much are you willing to tolerate?

Understanding risk, and how people respond to risk, can enhance your safety program. Since everyone has their own idea about what constitutes acceptable personal risk taking, this makes risk management in the workplace very challenging. Achieving a risk-free environment is impossible. However, it is up to you to establish just how much employee risk taking you are willing to accept.

Voluntary vs. Involuntary Risk
There are two types of risk-taking: voluntary and involuntary. A voluntary risk is one we choose to experience, like a vacation trip to go white water rafting or mountain climbing. Other voluntary risks can be as simple as jumping off a loading dock or not wearing safety glasses. These are perceived as less risky because we choose to do them.

An involuntary risk, one we are forced into doing, is quite different. Involuntary risk is usually viewed with anger and concern and is typically deemed unacceptable. Yet when the same risk is taken voluntarily, it is often considered acceptable. For example, consider the use of personal protective equipment like safety glasses and safety shoes. Employees would most likely rebel if an employer tried to force them to perform tasks without eye and foot protection. Yet, if an employee voluntarily chooses to forgo using personal protective equipment, it is regarded as an acceptable risk.

When employees are taking involuntary risks, substandard conditions typically already exist in the workplace. Many times, employers are aware of the issue because the employees have already brought it to their attention. A bigger problem occurs when employees take voluntary risks. Since the workforce will not identify these as risks and bring them to management’s attention, companies need to have programs and systems in place to identify and correct this type of risk taking.

Perceived vs. Actual Risk
In the work environment, the risk perceived by employees is usually much lower than the actual risk level. Behavior is determined by perceived risk rather than the actual risk. The longer one works on a job, and the more familiar and experienced one becomes regarding the risks of the job, the less risk is perceived. Familiar things are perceived as less risky and more tolerated than new or unknown risks. Remember how attentive you were when you first started driving: very alert, both hands on the wheel, no distractions from the radio, and driving well within the speed limit. Think about how your driving habits changed over the years. This is also what happens on the job. The longer one works at a job, the less the risk perceived with the job. This is complacency.

Constantly reminding employees of the risks and hazards of their jobs should be an important element of a safety program. Safety meetings, posters, letters, accident and incident investigation reviews, training programs, employee observations, standards of performance, and safety contacts on the floor are a few of the ways to offset employee complacency. At the safest companies, these types of considerations are integrated into daily business, not something that gets done once a month.

Risk Reduction
Risk taking, and acceptance of risk taking in the workplace, are clear indicators that accidents will occur. Employers should establish the behavioral risk tolerance they will accept and establish and adhere to standards of expectation. It is up to management to provide leadership that demonstrates what acceptable and unacceptable risks are.

A common technique to manage risk is ongoing employee training to favorably influence their risk taking behavior. Another effective tool is an employee observation program, which is a process to find and eliminate risky work behavior. This may be best done by a third party, as management may have overlooked and accepted the risk taking practices because they have existed for some time and are not perceived to be as risky as they actually are. Beyond controlling personal risk taking, employers should seek to reduce or eliminate the probability and consequences of potential risks through the use of engineering controls to take the risk out, or administrative controls, such as personal protective equipment, to manage the consequences of risk.

Unless we live in a vacuum, achieving a risk-free environment is impossible, and everything we do involves a certain level of risk. To function in our society we assume certain risk, and the same is true in the workplace. However, in the workplace it is up to you to establish the level of risk tolerance you are willing to accept.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Meet the Author
Thomas W. Eynon, GAWDA’s OSHA & EPA consultant, is senior associate at B&R Compliance Associates LLC in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.