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Construction Safety Tips: Safety Is Subjective

Have you ever crossed the street in a crosswalk when the red hand was still up?  My guess is that most of you are as guilty as I am of doing this. What may surprise you, coming from a safety manager of 17 years, is that I would stand by this statement: you may be safer crossing when the red hand is up.

Sure it violates the law, and yes there are hazards present, however there is one very big thing going in your favor: your head is in the game, you are alert and actively scanning for hazards. Illustrating the Cross Walk Effect

It’s Called the “Cross Walk Effect”

Next time you are downtown, watch pedestrians as they cross the street. They move in herds from the moment the red hand goes down and the green “it's safe to walk” guy appears. Most of them will be watching their feet, continuing in conversation or checking their texts or e-mails, completely oblivious to their surroundings.

Does that magic light or those painted lines somehow have the strength to stop a vehicle from running a red light or hold back a car that has just been rear-ended and shoved ahead into that crosswalk? Will the light protect them from a fast moving cyclist who feels the rules of the road don’t apply to them? The answer, of course, is no. 

What is true is that those lines and that light give many people a very false sense of safety. 

This is similar to what many of our time tested safety policies, practices, and PPE do to our awareness of the hazards and risks in the workplace

The Psychology Behind Risk and Safety

Let’s take a look at the basic definition of safety from Mr. Webster:


/ˈseɪfti/ Show Spelled [seyf-tee]

noun, the state of being safe; freedom from the occurrence or risk of injury, danger, or loss.

As a safety manager in the heavy construction and materials business, I never really thought about what the word safety meant as I stamped it on hard hats, policies and weaved it into fancy slogans. “Freedom from the occurrence of risk or injury…” Is that even possible in our work environment? Realistically, not all.  Risk is everywhere and at all times to varying degrees. So is it possible that a slight change in terminology and our thinking may bring us more success in protecting our employees at work? 

In what I consider a landmark book on the topic of risk, called Target Risk 2, Gerald J.S. Wilde discusses an idea called “Risk Homeostasis”. The theory maintains that in any activity people accept a certain level of estimated risk to their health, safety and other things they value in exchange for the benefits they hope to gain from that activity.

According to Wilde, people continuously check the amount of risk they subjectively feel they are exposed to and then compare it to the amount of risk they are subjectively willing to accept. If there is no difference between the two, then they proceed with that activity.  However if the benefit of taking the risk is perceived to be too great it's possible they will elevate the level of risk they are willing to take rather than cease what they're doing.

In many circles today, these ideas are summarized by the term “Risk Tolerance,” which we will discuss further in next month’s blog. 

Safety Risks Are Subjective

Target RiskBy looking at what we previously called “safety” through the lens of risk and its components, we can see that our continued focus on the traditional methods and practices that got us where we are today may not get us where we want to be tomorrow.

According to Wilde, everyone has a target level of risk they feel comfortable operating under. Just imagine across a workforce of 500 people how many different levels of target risk could be out there. Is the target risk of the “safety” manager the same as the field laborer or equipment operator? Does the general manager of the operation expect workers to take a different level of target risk than what the company on paper states? 

In your workforce, are there “Risk Under-Estimators” or “Risk Over-Estimators,” and what impact does each have on your business? These are all important questions we'll delve into further as we explore the factors that influence risk tolerance. If you don't want to wait until next month, you can read more now by downloading our workplace safety guide.

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