From risk to rock bottom: eradicating fatality by understanding risk propensity

By Lani van der Merwe, Organisational Development Consultant at OIM Consulting

Mining is notorious for being one of the most dangerous working environments in the world. Consider a ‘workplace’ created by Mother Nature in all her beauty and brutality, coupled with heavy machinery, an often-autocratic leadership style and unrelenting target-chasing, and it’s unsurprising that we’ve seen so many fatalities in the past.

Yet over the last few years, the public and private sectors have poured enormous energy into promoting health and safety within mines, with new safety controls developed and rolled out far and wide.

This approach is showing dividends, and the number of fatalities has dropped significantly since a few decades ago. However, sometimes rigorous checks and balances – while necessary – can be a double-edged sword should people become complacent, unduly confident in thinking that these controls alone will protect them.

In our line of work, as behavioural change consultants within the mining industry, we’re still seeing avoidable incidents in our mines. Research has indicated that between 80% – 90% of all accidents are caused by direct violations of safety rules, which can be in large part attributed to an individual’s underlying mindset and propensity to indulge in risky behaviour.

Understanding risk tendency

When we enter a mine, we typically conduct an assessment that measures an individual’s propensity to take risks.

This assessment, conducted in the form of a 3D game, helps us understand their risk tendencies. The game takes individuals through a series of risky scenarios that offer the potential for loss or gain, requiring them to make certain decisions.

The assessment studies their decision-making in these situations, and groups their behaviour into one of two distinct categories:

  • Risk-seeking decision-making behaviour – an individual is confronted with a risky situation and displays a tendency to overestimate the probability of gain relative to the probability of loss.
  • Risk-averse decision-making behaviour – an individual is confronted with a risky situation and displays a tendency to overestimate the probability of loss relative to the probability of gain.

By assessing these individual risk patterns, we’re able to understand the workforce’s general risk-taking tendency, which we categorise according to a Risk Propensity Matrix with four main risk profiles: Consistent Risk Adverse (cautious and predictable); Consistent Risk Taking (predictable in taking risks); Erratic Risk Adverse (cautious and unpredictable); and Erratic Risk Taking (takes risks but is unpredictable) – with Consistent Risk Adverse being the least concerning from a safety perspective, and Erratic Risk Taking being the most concerning.

So why do people take risks?

Once we have identified the workforce’s generalised risk profile according to the Risk Propensity matrix, we take our subjects through various scenarios to help them understand the factors that might influence their behaviour.

These include overestimating capability (“my strong body and work experience will keep me safe”), familiarity with task (“these everyday tasks are safe, I can do them without thinking”), the potential for profit (“if I finish this job quickly I will reach target, which means I will be rewarded with a bonus”), confidence in protection and rescue (“the rescue team will ensure my safety if I get into trouble”), and role models accepting risky behaviour (“my leaders take small risks so it’s okay”), among others. These can all influence one’s tendency to take risk.

Think Swiss Cheese

Once we understand the workforce’s risk propensity, we work with them to change their behaviour by focusing on situational awareness, which involves making people stop and think – in real time – what constitutes an unsafe act that might lead to injury or fatality. We help them evaluate their own behaviour and the possible consequences.

A control, in itself, cannot keep you safe. Just like with Swiss Cheese, any safeguard or control has certain “holes”. These holes could be organisational factors, unsafe supervision, pre-conditions or an unsafe act. Then suddenly, an initiating event occurs – such as the fall of ground – and multiple holes line up, creating a clear pathway for disaster. In other words, while an individual might indulge in risky behaviour nine times out of ten with no repercussions, all it takes is once for a perfect storm to occur.

A safety mindset

For us to enhance the efficacy of our safety controls or regulations, we need to nurture a safety mindset in our workforce. This will protect individuals in the event that all “holes” line up, helping them make better decisions.

A safety mindset is a mentality; a way of thinking and acting; a tendency or frame of mind; an intention and will to protect yourself and others; to control risk, and share safety values.

It is a set of underlying assumptions, beliefs and attitudes that result in an equal emphasis on a caring and controlling approach to safety. Our mindset influences our choices, actions and the way we respond to challenges and changes. It encompasses how we respond to rules and regulations.

Therefore, we teach our workforce how to apply situational awareness in their day-to-day work environment. We work with them to see the potential risk (risk identification); understand the risk (risk comprehension); and then think about how they respond to that situation (risk projection). We work with individuals to put together an action plan to address their behaviours, which we reinforce through coaching.

Coaching can foster and reinforce a mindset that allows for deeper situational awareness, important for environments where a great deal of work is repetitive. Embedding this behaviour can help prevent someone from operating on ‘auto pilot’ or becoming complacent.

OIM Consulting’s Supervisory Development Programme (SDP), for example, is one such programme that develops and reinforces a safety mindset. Through our coaching, leaders and supervisors learn that by applying the right behaviours or social processes around certain technical levers, our behaviours can positively impact our performance and keep us safe.

The safety controls and regulations that have come to the fore over the past few years are vital controls in promoting safety and should be adhered to. But we cannot become complacent or overly reliant on these tools, thinking that they will keep us safe against all odds, as no safety manual on earth can protect against every imaginable scenario.