Safety and Perplexing Food Combinations: Reconciling the Seemingly Incompatible Goals of Zero Injuries and Acceptable Risk

Lately I have heard about some interesting and odd combinations of foods at various restaurants. In an effort to please customers some creative chefs have ostensibly created some unique food designs to satisfy eclectic palates. Bacon-flavored dairy deserts and cheeseburgers with peanut butter come to mind as a couple of examples, and of course there is the southern delicacy known as pear salad (pear halves topped with mayonnaise and shredded cheese). While I may not necessarily be a fan of these foods, I am both perplexed and intrigued by the combinations. How can two (or more) seemingly incompatible flavors be combined together to create a winning product which customers will enjoy and keep purchasing? Well, I don’t know the answer to that question, but it really makes me wonder about seemingly competing goals in the realm of safety management: zero accidents and acceptable risk.

While safety is often defined as freedom from unacceptable risk, this implies a corollary of safe operations being the acknowledgement and reception of acceptable risk. We also know that risk includes two components (probability of an adverse event occurrence and the associated consequence in terms of severity if the event occurs). So, by defining (or describing) safety in terms of acceptable risk organizations are explicitly acknowledging the potential for harm and a degree of consequence.

At the same time organizations seek to define acceptable risk, many also establish zero-accident or zero-injury goals. These goals (or in some cases, visions) could be in the form of statements explaining that the organization wishes to create a workplace free from accidents or something to that effect. So, how is it that on the one hand organizations accept a certain amount of risk, yet on the other hand strive for zero accidents or injuries? If they accept a degree of risk are they not acknowledging the inevitable accident? Are these incompatible goals or does that depend on the individual and collective views of these goals? This is an important question because it can influence the way employees view safety in an organization.

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I know from experience that these two goals can work in harmony if employee and management have the right attitudes and if the policies and goals are explained to employees. My experience is largely in Marine Corps aviation operations. In Marine Corps Operational Risk Management (ORM) program documents it is clearly stated that the goal of ORM is not to eliminate risk. That is simply not possible in aviation, particularly in combat aviation. When we flew, we knew there was a certain amount of risk, yet every time we went into a flight our goal was for everyone to come home alive and injury-free while accomplishing the mission. I call this a “High-Reliability Attitude”, or “Mission-Accomplishment with Acceptable Risk”. With this High-Reliability Attitude comes the notion of being one’s brother’s or sister’s keeper. During high-risk missions we would look out for each other, work as a team, and maintain a level of technical and tactical proficiency. We also used Crew Resource Management, teamwork, and leadership to back each other up. We operated our aircraft as professional airmen and performed our jobs well so that we could come home safely at the end of the mission. In the Marine Corps we knew the risks and we strived for zero accidents. If or when fatal accidents occurred we mourned and grieved as a family and attempted to determine how accidents happened in an effort to prevent reoccurrence. We also demonstrated resilience as we continued our mission.

I think this concept can be translated to many other industries. By identifying and mitigating unacceptable risk and driving risk down to a point that is As Low As Reasonably Practicable (ALARP), accepting the remaining risk, employing well-trained and exceptional workers who are technically proficient at their jobs and who can perform well as part of a crew under varying conditions, organizations actively create safety and safety becomes an emergent property of the organizational system. Additionally, by developing a collective attitude that supports crew coordination and collaboration, and looking out for each other’s safety, organizations can strive for zero injuries or fatalities on a daily basis.

So, are acceptable risk and zero-accident/injury goals or visions incompatible concepts? I don’t think so, as long as everyone understands what these goals and policies mean. I don’t think I will be eating pear salad or bacon-flavored deserts anytime soon, but I can appreciate how they are put together. Next time you see that peanut butter cheeseburger on a menu and wonder how anyone could possibly eat it, maybe you will think about these ideas and how two seemingly conflicting concepts can work in tandem to help create safety, while meeting both production and injury-free goals.

Thanks for reading, and have a great and safe weekend!