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I Wish I Thought of That (risk assessment methodology)

I was recently talking with someone in the childcare industry who shared their experiences about health and safety, in particular risk assessments. They were frustrated, so much paperwork, bureaucracy and time spent on a process that seemed to be all about covering backsides. I hear the same thing all the time, people frustrated with safety, and I wonder whether risk assessment has become a ‘tick and flick’ exercise or an activity aimed at improving safety?

Risk assessment became a buzz term in health and safety with the introduction of ‘performance based’ legislation (e.g. OH&S Act in 1983 in NSW). On one hand it created a more flexible approach to health and safety, on the other, frustration for employers who just wanted to be told what’s “right or wrong”. Introducing the requirement for ‘risk assessments’ or ‘risk management processes’ was a way of self-regulating health and safety in industry.

When asked questions like the one from the person in childcare, it makes me wonder whether our current approach to “risk assessment” and “risk management” is really meeting with the intent of the law, or have we become obsessed with creating paper trails?

When I talk to people about risk assessment, the focus is often on getting the paperwork done, often copied and pasted from the last task/job/project. There is even a page on popular social media site LinkedIn (, and there are many others, where you can share ‘risk assessments’ and other similar safety documents.

I have also observed that most risk assessment methodology is objective, and there is very little understanding and consideration of how people make decisions and judgements, which is so subjective. More on this later.

Thinking back to the childcare example, the person I was talking with works in a particular part of the industry where people look after children in their own homes. Before you can start up such a business you are subject to a number of safety requirements, obvious things like:

  • Police and criminal checks
  • insurance requirements
  • inspections looking for things like safety glass, gates at the tops of the stairs and locked cupboards for chemicals, medicines and the like.

I thought, all pretty standard and not surprising. I’m sure they could do things a little differently, but pretty typical of safety controls in today’s litigious environment.

Then we started to talk about excursions, taking the kids down to the local park so they can get some fresh air, run around like kids love to do and play on the swings. A great idea right, the kids will love it, they might even learn while having fun. Of course first, you must do your risk assessment, you know the drill.

They have to complete a form, list the hazards, provide a risk score and nominate controls, the usual stuff. Then they send the completed form, first to the parents of all the children they will be taking and finally, send the form into the office where they must approve it. Then off they go, simple really! This alone takes about a week (at best!) to plan. I’m sure you’ve probably seen similar versions of this in many different workplaces. This process has some many limitations:

  • How can you think of all the potential hazards when you take a couple of kids to the park? – e.g. will that tree branch fall off today? It looks pretty safe?
  • How can you rank risks using a matrix that requires you to consider the likelihood of that branch falling off a tree? You’re in childcare, not an Arborist!
  • If that branch falls, will it land on the child’s arm, leg or head? e.g. – what will the consequence be, a cut, head injury, bruise?

As noted above, the other thing that is missing in this typical ‘risk assessment process’ is that there is often no consideration of how people make judgements and decisions. Through our studies in psychology and social psychology (for example see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow – 2011), we know that most of our thinking is not done in the rational and conscious mind, it is done in the sub-conscious. We develop heuristics to help us get through most our daily life and routine.

Dr Robert Long in his book Risk Makes Sense (2012) ( refers to Heuristics as “experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning and discovery. Heuristics are mental short cuts used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution, where an exhaustive search is impractical. Heuristics tend to become internal micro-rules”.

Think about when you are driving your car, you don’t “think” in your conscious mind when the brake light on the car in front comes on. You develop a Heuristic soon after you learn to drive that tells you “automatically” that you need to put your foot on the brake in your car. If we had to process this decision in our rational and conscious mind, we would be sitting in the back seat of the car in front before we could make a decision to respond!

If we look in detail at just one example of a Heuristic, there are many, and how it applies to safety, let’s consider the “availability heuristic”. This is where our brain “thinks” that something may be a greater risk just because a story is more familiar to us. For example, in this video ( the question is asked about what animal causes more deaths in the USA, horses or sharks. Most people may think sharks due to the number of dramatic news reports about shark deaths. However, because stories about deaths involving horses may not make national news bulletins, it is likely that this information won’t be as ‘available’ to people as shark deaths, hence that are likely to think Sharks. The “Availability Heuristic” comes into play because our mind will have a bias to go to whatever answer is easier and quicker, in this case sharks appears easiest because we hear of deaths involving sharks so often.

Since we do most of our thinking in the sub-conscious and heuristics drive a lot of what we do, I wonder whether there is any value at in the current method of doing a “risk assessment”. The typical process is that we gather a group of people, we work through the steps of the job/task/process then we come up with potential hazards. Because our conscious and rational mind doesn’t like doing a lot of work, we come up with hazards and their risks based on our heuristics. How can we really think that we have come up with an exhaustive list of hazards when we know that our brain doesn’t function like that? It is always looking for the shortest and quickest way to get to a solution. This has dangerous ramifications if we use this as our only method to understand risks at work. We must realise that the results of our ‘risk assessment’ are so limited because of this.

There must be a better way, and of course there is.

Do we really need to have mountains of paperwork, or should we focus on more effective conversations where we share ideas and experiences? As an example, during my conversation with the person in the childcare industry, I remember a number of very interesting things they said including:

  • “I always think after someone comes out for a safety risk assessment, I wish I thought of that”
  • “During a safety assessment the other day, I said to the person who was doing the assessment, I was wondering if you were going to notice that”
  • “When the person was here last time for the assessment they didn’t notice that”

I thought these were all gems and got me thinking about whether we can learn some things from this experience in the childcare industry by think about the following:

  • If we asked more instead of telling, would people realise things for themselves rather than have that feeling of “I wish I had thought of that”
  • If we have more conversations about hazards and risks, rather then telling, would our processes become more about sharing information and learning rather than policing?
  • If our conversations were meaningful during safety assessments, would everyone feel a part of “noticing that”?

I think there is a lot we can learn from these examples in the childcare industry. In your work environment, is risk assessment about ‘tick and flick”? Is paperwork more important than effective conversations and learning? Do you focus on objects more than people? Do you know about, and consider, Heuristics as part of your risk assessment process?

There will be those people who say, but we need the paperwork, otherwise how will we prove what we have done. I don’t suggest that we need to do away with paperwork, I say just don’t rely on paperwork. For those people working in fear of the legal fraternity who say things like “if there is no written record, it wasn’t done”, you can be sure the first thing a good lawyer will do if the matter ended up in court is to find a way to discredit what you have written, and find out how things were really done! Keep your paperwork, just make it simple. Spend more time conversing than writing!

Maybe we should think about “risk assessment” as being another way to engage people in more conversations, where they become more conscious of the hazards and risks that they face.

Do you think this would create safer workplaces rather than reams of paper that are created to cover backsides?

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