Safe Operations

Safe Operations & Accumulated Risks

It is well known that there is an error rate associated with every human activity.  In America there seems to be two general concepts of risk.  First, what I call the American view which is that “the longer something does not happen, the more likely it will not happen in the future”.  Conversely, the Chinese view is that “the longer something does not happen, the more likely it will happen in the future”.

The American view is based on the underlying concept that the risk goes away after each opportunity for it to express itself, in an accident for example. The next time that same opportunity presents itself it is assumed that risk is zero until the task is started.  The Chinese view is based on the underlying concept that risks accumulate and eventually causes the event or accident.  The next opportunity starts with some inherited risk carried over from the previous action.  So, which is correct, and are there some scenarios where only one or neither apply?

We can look to the insurance industry for some insight.  Life insurance follows the accumulated risk model while auto insurance tends to follow the re-setting (annually) risk model.  They have developed an extensive data base from which they can reasonably predict risk and management programs to step in when risks become unacceptable.  However, even they recognize that they don’t have a perfect handle on all risks.  They “lay off” these excess or unquantifiable risks onto others including their policy holders, workers, other insurance carriers, governments and the public.  Even as sophisticated as they are, this last area is still the preview of “professional judgement” and “experience”.

Risk Management

In the occupational health and safety fields much attention has been placed on risk-benefit analysis since the OSHA benzene decision in the early 1980s.  In the intervening 40 plus years a lot of work has been done in this area both in the private and public sectors.  Scientists have written textbooks on the subject and governments have institutionalized risk assessments in their rule making efforts.  We have become proficient at producing risk assessments; they have become part of the fabric of how we do things.  Today it is almost a given that any major HSE decision process will include some level of risk assessment.

However, today risk itself still remains a nebulous entity.  When you calculate risk what happens to it?  Where does it go?  Who owns it?  Does it have a financial or moral value?  Do we really know enough about risk itself?

The recent disaster on Wall Street is at least one example of risks being real, having value and accumulating.  Fortunes were made, and some ultimately lost, by moving risk around.  What about the Macondo well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico?  Was it a result of simply bad management, bad luck, a single action or did the risk generated in every preceding action accumulate to a point that the blowout was inevitable?

If risk does accumulate, how do we measure and quantify it?  Is it a simple sum of the risk per event times the number of events or does it accrue exponentially?  Can we create a mathematical model, and if so, what does it look like and what are the data requirements?  Is there a way to plot the increase of risk as a management tool?  If so, at what point on the graph do we (management) step in to stop or alter its progression and what kind of interventions are necessary?

Risks do “come home to roost”.  There seems to be a belief that once the calculation shows that the benefits out-weigh the risks, the risks disappear or are so low that no injury could be possible.  Using this logic, I am surprised that the governments have not denied lottery winners their winnings because the risk of winning was so small that they could not possibly have won.   But what happens if a worker is hurt?  The current workers compensation program was created in the early part of the last century and has hardly changed since.  In my opinion, it is out of date and woefully inadequate for the realities of injuries in the 21st century.  We need to completely rethink how we deal with the consequences of risk, especially how we compensate those who are injured as a result of even minor risks.

In our ever increasingly populated and complex world, getting to the next level of understanding risk and how to manage it is crucial if we are to prevent accidents, occupational diseases and public catastrophes and to deal responsibly with the consequences of risk that “come home to roost”.

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