The following column was published in the October 2015 issue of the Dutch professional magazine Vakblad Arbo (published by Vakmedianet).

Enjoy the Dutch version here. Or read the English translation below.


Relativity theory

Everything in life is relative. Or rather: nearly everything, because in the end even relativity is relative. Risk is a great example of relativity. There is a possibility of something happening or not, depending upon circumstances. I often say that there is only little black and white in safety. There are many shades of gray. Definitely more than 50.

Even so it often seems as if most safety professionals operate in a field that exists of mainly absolutes and black/white statements: We have zero tolerance for safety violations! Safety First! All accidents are preventable! I work safely or I don’t work! The risk in this situation is not acceptable!

These are all dubious statements that I gladly will get back to at a later point in time. Since this issue is about risk management it would be suitable to start with the latter.

Acceptable risk in itself is a relative measure, because it acknowledges that zero risk is impossible. Instead one assesses how much risk one is willing to take. Often people use some kind of a threshold value or the “red area” in a risk matrix and then take a decision. Simple isn’t it?

My recent change of branch effectively demonstrated me how relative the term ‘acceptable risk’ really is.

Take an activity with a high probability of serious or fatal injury. In most companies this will lead to a stop in activities until measures have been taken. High chance of fatality is unacceptable. Period.

Not for the police force. If there’s a shooting accident where lives of civilians are at stake (here in Norway the Utøya-drama is still very fresh in memory - and obviously the tragic incident in Oregon is another example) action is necessary to prevent worse. A colleague remarked: “Where everyone runs from, the police runs to”. The same applies of course for other emergency personnel who risk life and limbs in service of higher goals.

We often forget that taking decisions requires actually work and also should be so. Risk assessments are often based on simplified models and usually look only at one criterion. (Almost) every risk, however, has several sides, and therefore also criteria. Risk always depends upon context and (subjective) values. Conscious deliberation is therefore more important and more useful than simply managing by way of a colour or a number.

There’s a Dutch proverb that literally translates into: “One person's death is another's bread”. Maybe we should change that into “One person's unacceptable risk is another's challenge”...