EHS Management, Safety Culture and Behavioral Safety

Risky Business: An Expert Q&A on Risk Assessment in Company Safety Culture

Almost every EHS professional knows about risk assessment. But have you considered its impact on the overall health of your safety culture? Today we’re taking a look at how culture and risk assessment overlap in a Q&A with Gary Higbee, President and CEO of Higbee & Associates, Inc.

Risks analyzed

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In addition to his role at Higbee & Associates, Inc., Higbee is also Principal at the North American Management Institute and a Senior Consultant for SafeStart/SafeTrack. He will be presenting a preconference session, “Human Factors in Risk Assessment,” at Safety Culture 2018, an EHS Daily Advisor event.

Q: Why is safety culture particularly important in today’s EHS landscape?

As hard as it is to believe, we as a country are not improving our safety performance much, if at all. With all the effort put into systems, behavior-based safety, and other efforts, our deaths have gone up and our recordable rate, while dropping, is dropping just over 1% a year. That result is unacceptable. So, doing what we are doing isn’t working well and it isn’t likely that our results will improve without additional effort. Our effort has to be a team effort that includes all interested parties. A good safety culture includes vision, common goals, an action plan, appropriate resources, and engagement—we get all those things going, we’ll have a chance to improve.

Gary Higbee

Gary Higbee

Q: What role does risk assessment play in building a stronger companywide safety culture?

Safety is all about recognizing risk and eliminating unacceptable risk. I get a little nervous when I hear engineering talk about “acceptable risk” because what is acceptable to one is not acceptable to others. I want to get the risk as low as possible immediately and then work through reengineering to make the situation even better. When employees see that the company is serious about lowering risk exposure, they will be more open to discussing and assisting in the actions taken to reduce risk. The risk assessment process allows us all to speak the same language, get us on the same page, and it leads to much improved communication.

Q: What are the top human factors to be aware of when examining your risk assessment process and overall safety culture?

There are a number of human factors we can look at, but there are actually 4 that most affect changes to the risk of injury, quality issues, or productivity issues.

  1. Rushing: Going faster than a worker usually goes.
  2. Frustration: When things are not going well, workers get frustrated—either things that can have to do with the job or other things off the job that may take a worker’s mind off the task at hand.
  3. Fatigue: It can increase risk when a worker is overly tired, mentally or physically.
  4. Complacency: When workers are so familiar with a task they feel like they can do it without paying attention. You might also call complacency overconfidence or excess confidence.

All four of these factors can cause issues at work, at home, or on the highway.

Q: What’s the biggest mistake an EHS manager can make when it comes to human factors and risk assessment?

The biggest mistake is to think the amount of hazardous energy and the likelihood of getting into the hazardous energy is all you need to consider. Typical risk assessments ignore human factors altogether. I realize human factors are difficult—but not impossible—to see or recognize, but the employee knows exactly when he or she is rushing, frustrated, and/or fatigued (complacency is a little more difficult to recognize). So, the employee is a very important source of information and has to be included in the risk assessment process.

EHS managers also miss the opportunity to anticipate errors. It is easy to predict that injuries, quality issues, and productivity issues increase as we approach the end of a quarter and key performance indicators are not being met. People start going faster than normal, inexperienced help is used to “catch up,” and quality issues increase, which all lead to overall performance issues. If we can control these states, we prevent the error. EHS managers need to get out of their silos and become part of the overall enterprise.

Q: Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic when it comes to the state of safety culture today, both in the U.S. and globally?

Well, I’m generally optimistic about most things—I do not know a single successful pessimist. I believe the western world is finding out that we have plateaued and may even be losing ground. The realization that we need to improve will drive better systems and practices and will force us to consider human factors more seriously. I believe we are on the edge of another surge in innovation and understanding of neuroscience as it applies to safety and its practical application.

The rest of the world is getting better fast. My work in China, India, and other parts of Asia convinces me they will catch up to where we are today in another 10 years or so. I’m excited about what the world will look like in the next 10 years. Just think how many lives we can save, how many disabling injuries we can prevent, and how many families will not have to feel the negative impact of a failing or underperforming safety culture.

Gary HigbeeJoin Gary Higbee for his preconference session, “Human Factors in Risk Assessment,” at Safety Culture 2018, taking place September 12–14 in Atlanta, Georgia!

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