Staying in bed can be risky! Each year 6000 US adults injure themselves with their bedclothes. While in the UK, 20 people are electrocuted by bedside lights or alarm clocks, another 20 are killed falling over as they get out of bed, and 60 are seriously injured putting on their socks!


Risk as probability: 1 in 2000 pilots suffer from narcolepsy (sleeping sickness), but the chance of a pilot and copilot both being narcoleptic are 1 in 4 million (John Hodgeson, 1999).


Risk is often misinterpreted: Deaths from Ecstasy are noteworthy, particularly because of media coverage, but from 1985 - 2001 the drug accounts for only about 60 - 70 fatalities. While according to Alcohol Concern, deaths from alcohol related causes were between 28,000 - 33,000.


It's easy to focus on the wrong aspects of risk: Jogging is riskier than smoking - overexertion kills 1 in 1400 joggers while smoking kills 1 in 1700 people (John Hodgeson, 1999).


A matter of interpretation: there are approximately 40 nuclear power plants in the UK, and the probability of a major accident in a nuclear power plant is 1 in 10,000... or 1 in 10 depending on how you work it out (Ian Stewart, University of Warwick)!

Risk Management

To take a risk means to take a decision in the absence of sufficient information, or when the outcome is uncertain. In these instances, the uncertainty could result in meeting danger or threat to life. Within organizations this wide definition applies to many areas that include medical risk, financial risk, and general decisions affecting day-to-day operations.

From the perspective taken by Psychonomics, risk-taking is compounded by two important factors which we seek to aleviate. The first is that greater risk is taken when employees are in a group, and is known as the risky shift or group think effect. The second is 'distance'. Those who accept (or run) risk in an organization are not the same people as those who take (or actualize) risk. Those who run the risk are at the operational level; those who take the risk are at the strategic level, and may be distant in time and place. Another way to think about this is that a person may drive their car, but they rarely consciously consider accidents in advance - they run risks but they do not take them. At this bottom level, as at the bottom operational or task level of an organization, risk behavior has become automatic.

Nevertheless, if you were to look at the antecedents to industrial errors or accidents, it may show that a variety of factors are involved, with their sources rooted in a mixture of the actions of senior management, middle management, as well as the operational level. Indeed, while the operational level may follow procedures automatically, middle management may also apply tactical rules habitually, and senior management may make decisions in the form of tradeoffs between safety and costs, sanctions and schedules, or on the basis of calculated, probabilistic risk. For this reason, Psychonomics undertake the examination of risk at all levels, using a variety of formal (statistical) and informal (non-statistical) methods. The bottom line is that not only is it vital to take a broad view but in reality organizations rarely consider their problems with any kind of sophisticated risk assessment at more than the task or operator level, and rarely is this level the source of the cause of the problem - it is the place where the results of risk occur.

Furthermore, Psychonomics seeks to overcome difficulties where, for example, examining accidents in a limited or retrospective way does not allow for the possibility that unforeseen scenarios leading to accidents may occur - so called 'impossible accidents'. Maritime experts, we find, may only consider conditions such as storm, collision, grounding, fire, or explosions. Yet, causes of errors are not due to a poorly calculated acceptance of risk, nor to misperception of risk, or even a conscious rejection of a risky alternative - there is no conscious decision and analysis of risk factors. Indeed, information about risk possibilities is often not even available to these personnel.

However, risk is a highly complex phenomenon, and not as easy to deal with as might seem at first glance (see factoids at left). For example, people may say they will feel safer if safety devices are present or specific changes made. However, traffic junction studies where the line of sight is improved by, say, removing trees, shows that this can lead to drivers taking less care, because feeling safer leads to drivers driving faster! Hence, our job is often to systematically examine the facts and suggest the possible outcome before investments of time, money and resources are made.

At a more general level, we also consider how risk is affected by such factors as automatic reactions to labels and warnings about hazards. As a rough guideline, warnings should be in the form of positive assertions not negative. However, warnings often assume prior knowledge or assume the user has a similar background to the designer, which can be a source of errors and accidents. Another factor we consider is affect. This is the increased emotional response when a situation diverges from expected procedure. Perceived lack of control is another major factor, where greater risk is created by people's inability to control unfamiliar situations or systems, or indeed, deal with the conflicting goals of managers and clients.

In practice, besides creating better communication between all levels of the organization, other steps Psychonomics may take to reduce risk include those in the following table:





Specific Techniques



Providing information



Communicate a reason or incentive for operators to look for indications of warnings or potential accidents
Make the task or equipment understandable
Use positive statements that are clearly interpreted



Providing training



Clearly specify objectives and link these to skills learned
Promote appropriate behavior, which is then reinforced
Design for error minimization and graceful degradation - one way we achieve this is by training in the designer's mental model, as opposed to training for every eventuality or accident. This gives the operator a broader perspective taking into account design considerations, present technical, task or equipment status, and operational experience.



Modifying the system



Understand the user and how their mental model of the equipment or task operates, including their cognitive limits and their concept formation
Consider the image presented by equipment and procedures - the system image - where employees form their own model of the system image which often differs from that of the designers or senior managers


All this underlies the partnership Psychonomics aims to create between those involved in the running of the organization, thereby promoting a systems approach to risk management.










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