Safety Risk Taking – Its Contagious.

Here’s a problem that safety professionals have seen before: You have four crews.  Three of them follow safety rules and are incident-free.  The fourth crew has incident after incident.   It is a common problem, but solving it can be extremely difficult.

This image shows a region of the brain called caudate nucleus responding to the degree of risk in the gamble. Credit: J. O’Doherty Laboratory/Caltech
This image shows a region of the brain called caudate nucleus responding to the degree of risk in the gamble.
Credit: J. O’Doherty Laboratory/Caltech

A new brain study shows why it happens and why it is hard to fix.   It turns out risk-taking is contagious, like catching a cold.   The study was done by the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, a part of the California Institute of Technology.  Researchers put volunteers under a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in experiments measuring risk and gambling.

To put it in simple terms, when a subject took more risk, a specific part of the brain was triggered and it made it more likely that the subject would repeat that behavior in the future.   What researchers found was that, when a subject watched someone else taking risks, the same part of the brain was triggered and it was more likely to trigger in the future.  In other words,  your brain reacts the same way when you watch risky behavior as when you do something risky yourself, and that brain reaction makes it more likely that you will repeat risky behavior in the future.

So now lets look at the crew with the bad safety record.  The research seems to indicate that if one worker takes too many risks, their behavior will be “contagious.” Other worker see it, their brains react as if they had taken the risks themselves.  It makes it more likely that they will take their own risks in the future.

What do you do about this?  I have heard of companies switching around crews to break the pattern, but in some cases, the problems continue, probably because new workers model their behavior on the risk-takers.

One solution is to use psychology to fight psychology.  Double-down on behavior-based programs.  Reinforce the message that everyone is responsible for safety as a way to protect each other.   But it is just as important for the manager of that crew to watch and listen.   Figure out if one or two crewmembers are the main risk-takers.  Deal with them as individuals.  Make it clear that they need to follow the rules or leave.

This is especially tough when the main risk-taker is also the most skilled worker.  They believe that their skill means they don’t need to toe the line on safety rules and, because they are models for the rest of the crew, their risk-taking is more likely to spread to everyone else.

But the main thing you can’t do is ignore it, because risk-taking, like other contagious diseases, just gets worse if you don’t treat it.

Offshore E&P: The Risk/Safety Disconnect

The Bureau of Oceans Energy Management (BOEM)  is looking for public input on whether it needs to rewrite its regulations on risk management and financial assurance for offshore energy projects.   The fundamental goal of the regulations is to make sure that the taxpayer doesn’t wind up holding the bag if, for some reasons, an oil company can’t or won’t manage a lease from cradle to grave.

In light of some of the changes and increasing costs offshore, BOEM wants to update its risk and financial regulations, so it is releasing an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) that asks more than 50 questions.   You can read more about the ANPRM here.

What is striking about the proposal is the nearly complete disconnect between BOEM’s effort to manage risk and sister agency Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s  (BSEE) efforts to manage safety.   The ANPRM asks what risk measures BOEM should look at and how it affects individual projects, but here are some of the works that do not show up in the questions:

  • Safety management
  • SEMS
  • Compliance
  • Incidents of Noncompliance (INCs)
  • BSEE Performance Improvement Plans  (The most powerful tool BSEE has to force compliance)

In other words, BOEM does not seem to be looking at actual safety performance in looking at risk.

A little background may be in order.   Risk management is generally the process of identifying, prioritizing and controlling risks caused by uncertainty or unpredictable events.   Risk can include natural disasters (hurricanes, etc.), financial strength (potential for bankruptcy, etc.), exposure (insurance, etc.) and, significantly, safety performance.    Safety management involves  identifying, prioritizing and controlling hazards to humans and property.    For a look at how much overlap there is between risk management and safety management, take a look at this presentation from the Atlanta Safety Council.

In a practical sense, risk management lives in the world of loss control and insurance.  Safety management belongs to the safety department and, increasingly operations departments.   But just about everyone in business understands the connections.  If you don’t control accidents, your insurance goes through the roof.   We have also seen a number of cases offshore where there was a connection between significant incidents and the responsible party’s financial health.

All of which makes it curious that BOEM would not be more interested in how a company manages safety as a function of risk or to use the quality of a company’s safety program as a way to offer lower financial requirements.  It seems out of sync with the direction that insurers have been moving for years.