By Michael Wood
As 2016 comes to a close, I find myself reflecting a bit about probabilities and how little the people who must use them really understand them. And perhaps nowhere is that as true as in workplace health and safety.
Even professionals in the field get sloppy about this at times – making it sound like something isn't high-risk behavior unless it's more likely than not to result in an immediate injury. But that's not the reality of the workplace – employers and workers do not, in fact, engage in activities that typically injure the workers before the end of the first shift in which they do it.
The simple truth is that hundreds of Oregon roofers will probably spend much of this week working without fall protection. Countless machine operators will go about their tasks with machines that are either inadequately guarded or completely unguarded. And scores of excavation contractors will allow their employees to routinely work in trenches with insufficient or nonexistent protection. The list is almost endless.
And the reality underlying those risks is one of the reasons that it is sometimes so difficult to get employers and even workers to take the risks in the workplace seriously. But the truth is that a 1 in 500 risk of becoming seriously injured when you work without fall protection is a high risk – it's unacceptable, and, over the course of a year, it makes the risk that you will be injured reasonably likely. And if you multiply the risk by the large number of workers engaged in similar activity, even much smaller probabilities are likely to become realities.
That's why it is not enough to protect employees only from those events that are likely to occur. Because what is unlikely in a particular case is genuinely inevitable with enough events and with enough repetitions. The improbable not only can occur – it will occur, with appalling frequency.
Some of the rules we enforce involve improbable circumstances – even an improbable chain of events. But it also axiomatic that the rules we enforce "are written in blood." Almost every circumstance, almost every procedure, is based not on some theoretical model, but on real-life experience, no matter how unlikely.
If we are going to protect those we serve, we must achieve "unnecessary" levels of compliance. We must use safety devices and follow appropriate working procedures on days when nothing would have happened.
When I give speeches, I occasionally ask the audience how many of them wore their seatbelts as they drove to the event – it's usually everyone, or almost everyone. Then I ask how many needed to do so. Almost no one does. But you don't get the chance to go back and put the seatbelt on when it turns out that you needed it. The only way that you make sure that you have it the one time that you need it is by wearing it literally thousands of times "unnecessarily." Because the improbable will indeed happen.
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