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Here’s how it happened.

Recently, I left work in downtown Chicago at the end of a long and tiring day, and made my way to the train station I use every day to return home. I’d hoped to run some errands before going home to my family, so I was in a hurry. There was a person walking in front of me who’d paused near the top of the stairs leading down to the platform, possibly to check that they had their wallet or their transit card. How frustrating, especially since I could hear the train approaching! Without slowing down much, I sidestepped the person and attempted to quickly get down the stairs. Unfortunately, I misjudged the placement of my foot, and my smooth-soled leather boot slid off the end of the first step, which was still wet from rain earlier in the day.

What happened next is a bit of a blur. I remember the sensation of the world spinning around for a couple of moments. When that stopped, I was sitting in a lotus position at the bottom of the steps, hearing announcements over the speaker about a “customer who needed assistance.” I then noticed a few drops of blood hitting the bottom of my jeans and felt a burning sensation on my forehead, just above my right eye. I then realized that I was the “customer” they were talking about.  It seems I got down the stairs quickly alright, but not the way I had planned.

I wound up with a large scrape on my head, a cracked front tooth, some secondary swelling beneath my right eye and a few assorted bumps and bruises — with no major injuries, thankfully, except to my pride. The irony of this incident is that I, a veteran safety professional, went rolling down a staircase like the boulder from “Indiana Jones” because of a seriously bad call about risk. I’ve managed corporate EHS, I’ve given webinars and in-person talks on safety management and risk perception, and yet, I made a horrible personal decision when it came to my own safety, and had only luck to thank for the outcome not being much worse.

I’m writing this today to tell you that it can happen to you, too. When it comes to risk, we all have our blind spots. Let’s talk about some of them, so that you can hopefully avoid the need for a giant bandage on your head like the one I’m wearing right now.

“But I Do it All the Time!”

One of the most common ways we underestimate risk is by convincing ourselves that because we’ve done something many times and have never had an accident, there must not be any risk. This is a dangerous fallacy. Let me share the advice I’ve given many times during safety talks, and failed to take myself outside of work: “Absence of incidents is not absence of risk.”

Every time I had run down that staircase in the past, I was exposing myself to a risk  — a risk of slipping on wet stairs, a risk of misjudging my footing on the steps, or a risk of losing my balance due to momentum gained from my rush-hour pace. The risk on this particular day had increased because of my fatigue and choice of footwear. However, I hadn’t considered those factors in my hurry to get home. There is always a numerical probability of a certain bad outcome, and if we continue to expose ourselves to the risky behaviors and relax our awareness of contributing factors, the bad outcome is likely to happen. The challenge is to identify the risks that exist even in the absence of incidents. That is the heart of good safety management.

Here’s another example which shows that absence of incidents does not imply absence of risks from my time doing EHS consulting. Something similar to this actually happened at a branch of a manufacturing company that was well-intentioned and very serious about its safety record. This particular branch had not had an OSHA recordable injury in more than two years, and management considered them one of the “safe locations.” Then, within a span of approximately two months, they had multiple recordable injuries.

To understand why, let’s take a closer look at the circumstances behind one of those injuries. They had planned a first aid training event in the lunchroom, part of which involved an employee lying on the ground pretending to be injured so that his coworker could demonstrate proper CPR technique on him. You can’t get much more proactive or well-intentioned than a first aid demonstration, right?

They’d held similar demonstrations many times in the past without incident. Unfortunately, an employee who was a close friend of the man feigning an injury for purposes of the demonstration walked in through the backdoor of the lunchroom, saw her coworker on the floor and concluded he was seriously hurt. She panicked. While rushing to get help, she turned to run and slipped. She ended up falling, breaking her arm and missing multiple days of work.

Why did this happen? The investigation identified that whenever they’d previously staged this demonstration, they’d stationed people at the doors to brief any employees who may walk in, helping to limit disruptions and prevent any unnecessary panic. The problem was that the individual who knew about this door monitoring measures was on personal leave at the time of the event, and no one else was aware of the protocol. The other injuries that occurred at the branch during this same timeframe were also related to communication gaps involving the absence of the same individual.

The branch had gone a long time without incidents, but not because they had no risks. They simply had a person addressing the risks, and their failure was not also having a system to do so. Without that person present at the worksite, the risks that had been there all along had free reign to wreak havoc on the well-intentioned organization.

Difference Doesn’t Always Matter

A related mistake is to assume that incidents always occur because of the things we did differently, compared to usual routines or procedures. This is a corollary to the “But I do it all the time!” fallacy, since we are following a thought process that goes something like this:

  • There can’t be any risk with the way we usually do things, because we’ve never had a safety incident when we do them that way.
  • Since we now have a safety incident, it must be because we did something differently.
  • We need to find out what we did differently, and then make sure we don’t do it again, and everything will be fine from now on.

Don’t get me wrong, it is important to determine if any deviations from normal procedures occurred, and whether those contributed to the incident. But as we have seen, the first assumption in this chain of thinking is not necessarily true. It’s quite possible that there had always been risks that simply hadn’t made their presence known yet, and too much preoccupation with these deviations can skew our investigation and leave those risks in place.

It’s easier to understand this if we focus on a familiar example, such as a car accident. Suppose I drive home using a certain route every day, and I’ve never had an accident. One day, because of street closures, I have to drive home via a different route, and I get into a car accident. It’s easy to conclude that the different route was a direct cause of the accident, but maybe it wasn’t. It is very possible that I drive like a jerk every day, and it simply took this long to finally get into an accident!

Improving our risk perception means taking a longer, tougher look at the things we do each day. Focusing on differences in actions may potentially let ourselves off the hook too easily, and cause us to ignore the existing risks lurking just below our level of awareness. We might regret the eventual outcome of that. I know I do.

The Professional/Personal Partition

I find it remarkable that I can be so aware of safety issues as a safety professional, yet make such a poor personal choice about safety outside of work. But I shouldn’t be so surprised, since my experience has shown me not to be unique in that regard.

The “end of day” injuries are a phenomenon I’m very familiar with from my time in corporate EHS. Simply put, bad stuff often happens when the workday ends. Employees take off their puncture-resistant gloves at the end of their workday, then inadvertently touch a sharp object and cut themselves badly enough to need stitches. Employees slip and fall on their way out the door, or while walking through the parking lot to their cars. These things happen because of a kind of psychological partitioning we do. Workers perceive all of the risks to be within their job tasks, therefore, when the workday tasks are over, so too are their concerns for risks. They let their guards down, and that’s when injuries happen.

My situation was not exactly the same thing, since I mostly work in an office. But it is similar in the respect that I know while I’m at work, I’m supposed to be thinking about safety. On an intellectual level, I also know that I should always be thinking about safety, and that the same failures of risk perception can happen in our personal and professional lives. All the same, it was too easy to put my guard down when my workday ended and to make the misjudgment that led to my fall.

Lessons Learned From My Fall Down the Stairs

In the professional safety world, we often talk about “lessons learned” for incidents, which are exercises intended to focus on root causes and prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. Here is my own “lessons learned” from my accident.

My tumble down the stairs at a Chicago train station was a powerful reminder to me that failures in risk perception can happen to anyone, even a safety professional. It’s all too easy to convince ourselves that absence of incidents means absence of risks, to ignore safety issues in our everyday choices, and to psychologically compartmentalize professional risk awareness from personal risk awareness. For example, we might conclude that it’s only other people who are unsafe while texting and driving, or that it’s only other people who fall down the stairs while running to catch a train. This kind of tunnel vision regarding risk can ultimately place our health and safety, and even our lives, at risk.

A decision made in a moment can change lives forever. Please make sure that in all the days and years preceding that moment, you’ve been doing everything you can to challenge your preconceptions about risk and boost your awareness of safety in all facets of your life. When the choice comes, you’ll be more likely to choose wisely.

We can never entirely eliminate risk. But by being aware of the fallacies that undermine our risk perception, whether at work or at play, we can improve safety for our friends, our coworkers, ourselves, and for everyone who loves us and depends on us.

Let VelocityEHS Help!

Prevention of accidents starts with awareness of hazards, and that awareness relies on accurate assessment of risks. Our Risk Analysis software simplifies Job Safety Analysis (JSAs) for the job tasks in your workplace, and makes it easy to schedule, assign and track corrective actions to provide your employees with the visibility of risk management activities they need work more safely.

Want to be more proactive about occupational safety? Try our powerful and simple Audit & Inspection solution, which allows you to build and deploy specialized checklists for equipment, storage locations and operations, and to instantly generate and assign actions needed to correct identified issues.

Finally, never forget that your own employees are your best resource for safety. Tap into the diversity of risk perceptions among your workers by holding regular safety meetings, and use the feedback from those meeting to improve safety for all employees. Our Safety Meetings solution will help you schedule your meetings, manage your agendas and log your minutes so you can make the most out of your safety team’s suggestions, and show your employees that their feedback matters.

As always, we wish you a safe and healthy workday – and continued safety and health when the workday ends.