The Dynamic Balancing Act: Reducing Unacceptable Risk and Embracing Acceptable Risk

Depending on who you talk to you may get a lot of different definitions for the term “safety.” Some people believe that safety means absence of harm, while others may equate safety to compliance with safety regulations. To me, though, safety should have to do with risk (the likelihood of something bad happening and the potential consequences if that bad thing were to occur). To that end, one safety definition frequently used is “Freedom from Unacceptable Risk” (American Society of Safety Engineers 12). While I don’t necessarily love that definition, it does give us something to work with because we can then describe safety in terms of risk. So, if we believe this is an adequate working definition for safety, then we would think that the safety practitioner is responsible for helping to set the conditions so workers are not subjected to unacceptable risk. Achieving this goal may be quite challenging for safety practitioners. The process may include many conversations trying to get non-safety managers to understand their viewpoint of what is unacceptable risk. Safety practitioners want production managers, supervisors, and workers to be compliant with safety controls in order to reduce risk to acceptable levels (that is, assuming the organization uses a risk-oriented approach and understands that safety means more than compliance with regulations).

For those other workers outside of the specific field of safety, such as production managers and teams, do they have the responsibility to help the organization seek the remaining part of the equation, (seeking and using acceptable risk)? Is it the operations professional’s job to seek out and exploit the acceptable risks to achieve the mission of the organization? After all, no organization is created simply with a mission to remain free from unacceptable risk. Organizations are created to solve a problem, deliver a service, or produce a product. Of course, if they can’t do this without seriously injuring people or causing major industrial accidents then they shouldn’t be in business, but the point is that safety is not their raison d’etre. If we believe that production personnel are responsible for exploiting acceptable risk, then this involves at least some inherent risk-taking activities. If this is the case, shouldn’t safety professionals and practitioners use their knowledge, skills, and abilities to help the organization exploit these risks to maximize the upside potential while minimizing the downside? If safety workers seek to influence production workers to help them understand the need to avoid unacceptable risk, isn’t the other side of the conversation where production workers try to influence safety professionals to help them understand how they should help workers work within their acceptable risk boundaries? Empathy can go a long way and I think it helps for safety practitioners to understand the viewpoint of the line operators, and for operations workers to understand the viewpoint of the safety workers. To this end, safety and production work to achieve a harmonious balance between unacceptable and acceptable risk, and hopefully the organization educates managers on how to make sacrifice judgments so they know when to slow down production to emphasize safety. This dynamic balancing act becomes, as Dr. Erik Hollnagel calls it when referencing Dr. Karl Weick about reliability, a “dynamic non-event.” (Hollnagel 5)

I believe this is possible and it requires deep conversations between workers at multiple levels so that a work system may be designed in a way that protects workers while empowering them to achieve the organization’s production goals. I think these conversations should take place around how work systems are designed, so below I included an excerpt from my book Team Leadership in High-Hazard Environments: Performance, Safety, and Risk Management Strategies for Operational Teams:

Work system design is an iterative process and even after the systems have been designed, they must be tested and revised. Following a design–develop–test–implement process, the work system may be created and then tested in a controlled environment with those who will be doing the work to ensure it works effectively. Feedback is obtained and input back into the design phase until the work system meets the needs of all parties involved. Then the work system is implemented into the operational environment and used by all required teams. Feedback should be obtained again, particularly from the operational teams closest to the hazards and doing the work. Ultimately the work system should support those teams, so their feedback is essential.

While it would be nice to think this process would be finished after the implementation phase, in reality it should never stop because the organization is constantly adapting and changing, so the work system should simultaneously adapt, change, and undergo incremental improvements. As often happens after work systems are implemented, the teams realize there are better ways to perform their tasks and that some of the compliance requirements and safety rules may not fit with more efficient methods for doing the work. If work system design iteration is not made a priority gaps may emerge between the way operational teams conduct their work and the formal procedures. When these gaps are created violations of compliance rules and safety policies often occur, and even worse, injuries and accidents can result. This is not to say that the operational teams are right or wrong for their perspective on the best way to do the work, but the process itself must be monitored and updated, aligning the operational procedures that are actually used and the formal policies that are created. This methodology is neither an appeasement of operational teams doing the work, nor excessive conciliation with the rule makers creating formal policies, but is a way of ensuring all the requirements are aligned in such a way as to keep the teams safe, effective, and efficient while ensuring the organization itself remains in compliance with obligatory regulations. In this fashion the gap between actual work and policy can be closed (or at least narrowed) while adhering to compliance and safety rules. This iterative alignment process should also work to ensure that risks remain within acceptable levels. (Cadieux 147-48)

These types of conversations to align practice and design are difficult without a shared understanding of the various goals different departments and teams in the organization are given and what motivates the teams and workers. A shared understanding and empathy for each type of team is important in achieving all of the organizational goals. In USMC aviation squadrons, unit commanders are required to attend a commander’s level safety course. Additionally, before being selected to be a squadron commander they normally must have served as an operations or maintenance department head. So, by the time they reach the command level jobs they have built an understanding of the various goals and activities required by various departments. Additionally, in aviation squadrons the Commanding Officer, Aviation Safety Officer, and the Director of Safety and Standardization are all aviators, so they understand what it means to be a front line leader as well as the need to reduce risk to acceptable levels. The Aviation Safety Officer, regardless of rank, has direct access to the Commanding Officer and may bypass any chain of command for safety issues. This is to help ensure safety is made a priority, even in the high-risk business of military aviation. Many of the aviators and aircrew have worked in operations, safety, and/or maintenance-related jobs at some points in their careers. While this organizational design model may not be appropriate in all organizations, it does tend to be effective at balancing safety and production, building a shared understanding across teams, and creating empathy by helping workers to see other’s viewpoints, and helps to align perspectives between work design and rules with actual work practice. 

While some safety practitioner’s may see their sole purpose as eliminating unacceptable risk, wouldn’t it be powerful if safety workers could also have the deep conversations with production workers to help them seek out the opportunities within the bounds of acceptable risk? This process might include a pre-job meeting where safety professionals and operational teams sit down and discuss the hazards and risks, and safety controls to reduce risks to acceptable levels, but might also include a deeper conversation about how the controls could also be developed and implemented to help workers do their jobs more efficiently and effectively, while not compromising safety. Sure, it is understandable that compliance with rules is necessary, but if there are ways to comply with the rules while achieving acceptable risk, but also helping teams to do their job better, isn’t that a more powerful tool for the overall mission of the organization? Could these conversations help the work system design process? What do you think?

I think these deep level conversations must also be followed up with a process to capture the stories and retell the stories in a meaningful and impactful way to help influence positive change in organizations. The challenge for many is that after they capture the stories they don't understand how to tell the stories in a compelling manner using a repeatable process. We're here to help. If you would like information on our storytelling workshop and course, and to receive a FREE copy of our storytelling guidebook, please enter your email below. 


American Society of Safety Engineers. Prevention through Design: Guidelines for 11 Addressing Occupational Hazards and Risks in Design and Redesign Processes, 12 ANSI/ASSE Z590.3-2011. Des Plaines: American Society of Safety Engineers.

Cadieux, Randy E. Team Leadership in High-Hazard Environments: Performance, Safety and Risk Management Strategies for Operational Teams. London. Gower Publishing, 2014

Hollnagel, Erik. "The Issues." Safety-I and Safety-II: The Past and Future of Safety Management. Burlington: Ashgate, 2014.