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Risk Assessment

Risk Assessment

Chapter excerpted from my book, Make Rules Without Making Enemies.

Be Careful

When my son, Oliver, was two years old, I caught him standing on a tall stool.

After positioning myself where I could catch him if the worst happened, I tried to use my own communication training. “What would happen if you fell off that stool, Oliver?”

He dismissed the question—along with any concerns I may have had—with “It’s OK, I’m being careful.”

His confidence and vocabulary surprised me. I’d never heard him use that word.

Curious, I asked, “Son, what exactly does ‘careful’ mean?”

He didn’t know. He was sure that word somehow had the power to keep him from falling off the stool, but he had no idea what it meant.

I considered this for a moment, then realized I hadn’t thought much about it either, at least not enough to clearly explain it to a two-year-old.

I had to think for an uncomfortable moment or two before explaining to Oliver that “being careful” meant “making good decisions.”

That was the first time in my life I’d said or thought anything cogent about “being careful,” but it made sense to both of us, so when I then asked him, “Is standing on the stool a good decision?” he had to hang his head and concede that it was not.

I’d struck gold there, but I didn’t realize it until the next time I caught myself saying, “I’ll be careful.” Of course, I had every intention of being careful (whatever that meant), but I’d put ZERO thought into what that might look like. I had to stop myself and ask, “What good decisions can I make?”

I’ve tried to make that a habit, but I still slip. Oliver helps me out by challenging me with, “Is that a good decision, Dad?” Now that he’s old enough to enjoy catching me, these reminders come maybe more often than I’d like.

It was uncomfortable and instructive to wonder how many times I’d said, “be careful,” without ever stopping to consider what it meant. It was more uncomfortable and more instructive to remember how much value I’d given to “be careful.” Not just with my own safety, as in “I’ll be careful,” but in exchanges like “You be careful,” then later, “What happened? I told you to be careful?!”

How many times had I stood up at a safety meeting and had nothing else to offer but some elegant rephrasing of “be careful”? And how had I ever thought that was enough?


There’s an old trope that Eskimos have fifty words for “snow.” In grade school, they told us this to stress how important snow is to an Eskimo.

I don’t speak Yupik, Innuit, or any other “Eskimo” language, so I’ll have to take my teacher’s word for it. What I do know is that English has a lot more than fifty ways to say “be careful.” Here are fifty. I’ll bet you’ve heard every one of them in a safety meeting. And I’ll bet again that you could add a few to the list:

Watch out. Take care. Stay alert. Mind yourself. Don’t do anything stupid. Watch your back. Keep your eyes peeled. Stay on your toes. Be on the lookout. Use common sense. Remain vigilant. Pay attention. Be on your guard. Stay sharp. Keep an eye out. Be circumspect in your actions. Be prudent. Be sensible. Work conscientiously. Be cautious of your surroundings. Be mindful of potential hazards. Stay safe. Expect the unexpected. Exercise caution. Stay out of harm’s way. Watch out for the person next to you. Don’t take unnecessary risks. Use the good sense your mother gave you. Don’t be reckless. Pull your head out of your backside. Take it easy. Handle with care. Proceed with caution. Work safe. Don’t get in a hurry. Take heed. Keep your wits about you. Don’t let your guard down. Maintain high alert. Practice situational awareness. Stay focused. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t tell your kids to do. Don’t put your hands where you wouldn’t put your [something important]. Avoid pinch points. Watch your step. Stay on the ball. Keep out of harm’s way. Look before you leap. Keep your mind on the job. Remember why you’re out here.

We say, “Be careful,” a lot and in a lot of ways. Read through risk assessments in your own organization, and I’m sure you’ll see liberal use of these phrases and others like them. We even have acronyms for a few ways to say “be careful” so we can write or type them faster. Have you seen ABBI for “Above Behind Below Inside”? How about “PLT” for “Proper Lifting Technique”? These might be faster to write, but they aren’t faster to process or easier to follow. Besides, EVERYONE is your company is already paying attention and using proper technique. Don’t take my word for it; ask them!

Equally easy to write but hard to process are “stay hydrated,” “avoid overheating,” or “remember [whatever].”

There is a big problem with this kind of language, and then there is a bigger problem. Both are easily fixed.

The big problem is that it’s hard for us to know our own state of mind. Anger, fear, sadness, elation, and even focus (especially focus) can make it difficult to recognize when we’re being distracted. We’ve got a lot of ways to say “be careful,” but maybe even more to say, “I didn’t mean to.”

We operate under the assumption that we are in control of ourselves. That’s why when someone gets hurt, it’s common to hear, “Why would [the injured party] intentionally put their hand in that spot?” as if intention and conscious decisions were the way most actions occur. But the truth is we’re terrible at remembering to remember.

That’s the big problem. The bigger problem is that other people can’t read our minds. If you walk onto a job site without a hard hat, a dozen people will whistle, yell, wave their arms, and tap their heads to let you know. It takes maybe one second for the people around you to realize something is wrong and another second to identify what it is.

That can be even faster if we’ve just discussed hard hats in a safety meeting.

But what if, instead of hard hats, our safety meeting had focused on mindfulness? Maybe we all walked out to the job site committed to being more “present” in the workplace.

Maybe your mindfulness started to wear off around lunchtime? One minute, you were engaging your senses, focusing on the sequence of job steps, and maintaining awareness of the people around you; the next minute … tacos.

Someone around you might have eventually noticed, but it wouldn’t have happened right away. It’s not something you’re going to notice in others unless you’re remembering to remember to remember to remember to be mindful yourself.

The Fifty-Foot Rule

So, you want mindfulness?

Every hobby is the same. You see something that holds your interest just long enough to see something else. When you go back to look at that something else, you see a third thing. Repeat this enough times, and these things you see start to form a narrative. The things have relationships to each other. There is a story, and it is fascinating. As you investigate this story, you meet other people on the same path. You learn from and teach each other.

These stories are like living things. They have a way to grow and even to defend themselves. You reach a point of understanding and enthusiasm that isn’t available to people outside the hobby. You are driven to continue learning and teaching, so you seek others who are advanced enough in the hobby to learn from and teach to. You are willing to spend increasing amounts of time processing increasingly complex lessons.

And you begin to exclude people who distract from this hobby. I don’t watch baseball, but the local team has been in the World Series twice in the past few years. When your local team is in the World Series, strangers will approach you to engage in conversation about the World Series. You can’t step into an elevator without making a new acquaintance. And if you aren’t invested in the World Series, friends will avoid you—they’re all off talking to strangers. Don’t worry, they’ll come back after the game.

This whole thing can be “kicked off” by watching a game with a friend, walking past a store window, receiving an interesting heirloom from a relative, reading something contentious on the Internet, or intentionally feigning interest in your immediate environment. Mindfulness starts with someone reminding you to listen to your breathing and in the best cases ends with your finding a fascinating story in your own job or situation. Build enough of a narrative around the world within arms reach, and you will start excluding contentious things you read on the Internet. It can be transformative.

What does this have to do with risk assessment?

I selected mindfulness because it’s a bit squishy. It’s still kind of a nebulous concept. If I challenged you to be tough, be humble, be a leader, take pride in your work, or take ownership, you’d have a pretty good idea what I meant. But if challenged you to be mindful, you would likely have a few follow-up questions. If you are familiar with mindfulness already, you doubtless have quibbles with the simple explanation I gave above. Mindfulness can be a hard thing to pin down, and anyone who tries usually resorts to other squishy words like “presentism.”

This squishiness makes mindfulness an excellent example of a principle. Most concepts have two parts:

  • an aspirational component; and
  • a methodology

If you want mindfulness in your job plan, stick to methodology. If you can make something as aspirational and squishy as mindfulness visible from fifty feet, then you can “methodologize” pretty much anything into a series of actions that can be seen from fifty feet. Let’s get started.

Instead of encouraging personnel to be present and engaged, instruct personnel to stop every [some number] of hours or iterations and review the job plan. Be specific and define what “review the job plan” looks like. Maybe that’s one person reading aloud and the rest of the crew facing that person. Whatever it is, make it something you can see from fifty feet. Use big, objective actions. You should know when you’re doing them, and so should everyone else around you.

Now, proceed to easier problems than mindfulness. If the aspiration is to use proper lifting technique, stop and demonstrate proper lifting technique before the job. Can you see that from 50 feet? Absolutely! If the aspiration is to say hydrated, check and refill the water cooler every hour or stop for a five-minute water break every half hour. I can’t measure your hydration from fifty feet, but I can see you taking a break. If the aspiration is to watch out for crush points, identify and mark these crush points before starting the job. Make a mark we can see from fifty feet.

More on Being Present

I often start off my risk assessment class with three paper cups, marked “cup A,” “cup B”, and “cup C.” Cup A is the cup full of coffee that I would have walked in with anyway. Cups B and C are empty.

I take a few sips out of cup A while I introduce myself. Sometimes, we “go around the room” and all introduce ourselves while I continue to enjoy the coffee in cup A. After introductions, I immediately start with the first exercise.

Exercise One: Fluid Transfer

We will transfer the remaining coffee in this cup, cup A, into cup B and then into cup C. Start by identifying the risks.

This is a verbal exercise, so students either raise their hands or just shout out answers. Invariably, someone says, “burns!”

When I hear this, I take a sip of coffee and say, “Sorry, I didn’t catch that. What was it you said?”

“Burns,” the student will repeat.

I’ll take another sip of coffee, sometimes with an ostentatious slurping sound. “One more time, please; I didn’t quite understand you.”

By this time, everyone gets my point. Obviously, this coffee is not hot enough to burn me. The student who said “burns” looks like the butt of the joke. That student was using imagination instead of investigation to determine what the risks were. That student had treated our fluid transfer risk assessment as an academic exercise, not an assessment of actual risk.

But I point out to the rest of the class that they’d pretty much all fallen for it. Rarely does anyone walk up to inspect the cups, and even when some savvy person does, the rest of the class doesn’t follow their example.

These are often experienced personnel who have filled out hundreds of risk assessments, and they do the same thing in class that they do in the field: they try to please the teacher. They assume I’ve got a list of words in my head and that if they repeat enough of those words, the teacher will be satisfied and leave them alone. They’ve been conditioned to play this gotcha game instead of doing an actual risk assessment. The whole thing becomes an exercise in manual writing instead of job planning.

I’ve seen many hundred risk assessments that use the word “if.”

  • “If the load won’t fit down the hatch …”
  • “If the board is too heavy …”
  • “If the ground is wet …”
  • “If the pipes are too hot …”
  • “If the weather is too cold …”
  • “If visibility is low …”
  • “If the bucket is too full …”
  • “If the shelf is too high …”

Meanwhile, the load, board, ground, pipes, weather, visibility, bucket, shelf, etc. are RIGHT THERE. We don’t have to deal with “what if” when we already know. If something requires two people or a different tool or an additional step, why don’t we just go get it now instead of writing out this bowl of conditional spaghetti?

A lot of this can be addressed with training. I lead students through contrived examples (you saw me do this in the mindfulness section). Then the students tell me it isn’t possible to be both brief and clear in their jobs. Then the students offer real examples. Then I express the real examples briefly and clearly. Then everyone makes a little progress. A few hours of this goes a long way.

But what can’t be fixed in class is that too much responsibility has rolled down the proverbial hill to the front-line workers doing the risk assessment.

Responsibility is first assigned by company executives or legal standards. Their instructions are understandably broad, as they have to apply to an entire industry or organization. Let’s start with an OSHA requirement.

To facilitate cleaning, every floor, working place, and passageway shall be kept free from protruding nails, splinters, loose boards …[^5]

Every organization is different, but a nice example of distributed responsibility might go something like this:

  • Before the contract is signed, the Corporate Safety Department makes an arrangement with the client to provide dumpsters or large-scale disposal of demolition waste.
  • The Project Team has a good idea of how much demolition waste will be produced. The Project Team arranges for temporary storage and on-site transportation of demolition waste.
  • The Site Safety Personnel create a waste management plan that describes the arrangements made by the Project Team and assigns responsibilities where required.
  • The Site Safety Personnel acquire signed authorization from the client to have a daily or weekly scheduled deep cleaning.
  • The Work Crew creates a risk assessment, identifies demolition waste, and instructs personnel to proceed as detailed in the site waste-management plan.

That’s the best case. The worst case is easier for almost everyone:

  • The Corporate Safety Department pastes the requirement into the management system.
  • Responsibility rolls down to the Project Team, who attach a copy of the entire management system to some site-specific document just to make sure the client signs it.
  • Responsibility rolls down to the Site Safety Personnel, who copy some subset of the management system onto a smaller document, save it as “Waste Management Plan,” and upload it to the company SharePoint site.
  • Responsibility rolls down to the Work Crew, who are given, at best, fifteen minutes to decide and document exactly what they’re going to do with a pile of old boards with nails sticking out of them—along with every other hazard they might identify in their risk assessment.
  • The next Work Crew pretty much starts over …

Each level looks at the previous step and thinks, “This is what the boss put down, so I guess this is what the boss wants back.”

We can’t have the best-case scenario every time. We can’t anticipate every decision that will have to be made. We can’t front load every possible project or contract with a closet full of paperwork. We will always require people to react. Work crews have the most training and the best view of the work, and we will forever rely on them as the last, best chance to anticipate risk.

But we cannot rely on them as the only chance to anticipate risk. Every level of the organization should digest their share of the complexity and complete or distribute work product that would be redundant at a lower level.