Innate Risk Capacity

William H. Kincaid
in food,safety

In the food industry, we know our goal: to get healthly, safe, appealing food from the producers to the customers in a sustainable, cost-effective way.  If done right it benefits the producers, processors, packagers, distributors, retailers and customers.   Making sure our people are safe is an important part of making it happen.  Yet as much time as we might spend training our people, we are often disappointed to see that training ignored and accidents happen when employees knew better.   Some states have new laws that reduce workers compensation when an injured employee violated a safety rule.   I believe that’s a well-intended swing at the wrong nail.   Let me explain why in the next few paragraphs, starting with a sad but true story.

My wife’s business partner recently took a rare break from over-work for a weekend at the lake.   About an hour in, the boat he was riding in had a mishap involving another boat’s wake.   He was tossed into the air, landed awkwardly, and shattered a vertebra.   Luckily his spinal cord survived.   Now he’s in the long, painful process of recovery.   The poor guy was just out to have a little hard-earned fun, bobbing around in a fishing boat, and look where it got him.  It got me thinking about how the human mind deals with risk – our internal risk assessment and management functions.

We safety professionals usually can recall being seen as safety nags, or overly cautious worry-warts.  Have you seen the Ben Stiller movie where he played an insurance risk assessment expert who, armed with the statistics, seems to be afraid of everything?   He’s a ridiculous character who can’t enjoy his own life.   And, you can just bet, if there was a boat scene in the movie, he’d be the only one with a lifejacket, and he’d probably have it on in his car while driving to the dock – just for the extra laughs.  But he’s not a realistic person, not even for those in our profession.  

Hundreds of people are killed every year in boating accidents, and thousands injured, so boats indeed carry a level of risk.  It’s no mystery because of public safety press releases and awareness campaigns by various agencies during boating season.   In spite of that, the idea of a nice boat ride seems pleasant, not a way to get killed.   An intelligent adult will get into a powerful boat with a slightly intoxicated friend at the wheel, no lifejacket, no seatbelts, and be content sipping a beer as the boat roars into an unregulated waterway populated by other speeding boats zigging and zagging any way they choose.   

My conclusion as to what erases any fears and allows this apparent “carelessness”?   Human beings have an innate capacity to ignore risk if it allows them to achieve a desirable goal.    If I want to fish and enjoy a fun boat ride with my buddies I will need to accept the risks of a boat ride.  Even worse, if I want to even get to the lake, I need to ride in a car, and cars slaughter a whopping 40,000 people a year!   I can easily do it all, and without fretting a single moment during the process.   How can that be?

Imagine a caveman, huddling in a dark cave, afraid of the sabertooth tigers possibly lurking outside.   Let’s call him Larry.   Larry the caveman recalls seeing his old cave-bowling buddy, Marty, devoured by one of those tigers.   Larry decides to leave the cave anyway.   Larry needs to leave the cave to find food, and maybe a girlfriend to perpetuate the species, and has to accept some risk to do it.   He can even completely tune out thoughts of the risk to keep his focus clear on finding what he is looking for.   To the extent that if the sabertooth does return, he might be surprised, and wind up like poor old Marty did.   

Larry’s caveman mind accepted the risk and allowed him to get out of the cave to accomplish desired goals.    And that is the mind we have inherited today, with some 50,000 years of minor evolutionary improvements.   That’s why we can feel safe driving a car, the death machine known to be responsible for 40,000 fatal accidents a year.  Maybe texting and smoking a cigarette while we do it.

We need to remember this capacity.   It allows employees to tune out and ignore safety training, for one thing, greatly reducing the value of mere education as a preventive means.  If my boss wants me to do something that doesn’t quite match what the DVD said in safety training, I will probably just do it.  It also allows people to do things we’d never imagine a person would dare to do, and feel just fine doing it.  Safety training alone builds the boat, but positive emphasis runs the motor – it’s the “push” everyone needs to override that natural fear-erasing talent.   We need to provide enough ongoing safety emphasis to counter the human ability to ignore risk.       


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