The multifaceted, complex and widely misunderstood concept of “risk” has fascinated me for many years, dating back at least to the late 1980s in North America when I began my involvement in ecological and human health risk assessments projects. At that time, I was introduced to terms such as “voluntary” vs “involuntary” risk, “natural” vs “artificial” risk, and “individual” vs “population” risk. I developed and programmed Monte Carlo simulation models to carry out probabilistic exposure assessments to aid in estimating risk. I used advanced tools (at least for that time) such as decision analysis and expert elicitation to better quantify risk and to make more "informed' decisions. Within our project team we would argue/debate about the use of 1:100,000 or 1:1,000,000 for the incremental lifetime cancer risk in our human health risk assessments, etc., etc., etc. In short, I thought I understood risk.
However, my largely academic, developed-country perception of “risk” was immediately challenged when I moved to south-east Asia in the mid-1990s. There, my eyes were quickly opened to the cross-cultural differences in the perception of risk. For instance, in Canada prior to discharging a newborn baby from a hospital it was necessary to have a government-approved car seat. In Thailand, child seats were effectively non-existent, as were seat belts. Rather, families of five were weaving through the horrendous Bangkok traffic jams and heat on a single motorcycle, sans helmets and with babies in arm. Construction workers wore flip-flops. Welding was being done on the street with no face/eye protection. Electrical cords were running everywhere with no grounding or protection (come to think of this, still much the same situation today!). From my North American perception, it was impossible to fathom the level of risk these people were taking.
Now after twenty years living and working in many undeveloped countries (including some of the poorest in Asia such as Afghanistan and Cambodia), I am no longer shocked by what I see. That doesn’t mean I accept the risk-taking behavior, particularly the crazy fools texting Facebook messages while speeding down the expressways! But, I do understand that there are differences in perception of risk that result in behaviour that we from the highly regulated western countries may consider outrageous.
In this blog post, I explore this concept in some detail by first providing a broad overview of key terms and concepts, discuss factors that affect risk perception and risk tolerance, and offer recommendations for the HSE professionals working in developing countries. To be clear, the purpose of this blog post is not to place value judgements on risk as I believe that is not helpful and in fact harmful to this discussion. Rather, my goal is to attempt to provide some insight to HSE professionals (and in particular the western ex-pats living and/or working in developing country) as to why workers from developing countries are often taking what we perceive to be seemingly inexcusable risks. In other words: Why Are They Doing That?
A Primer on Risk
One definition of risk is that "risk is the chance or probability that a person will be harmed or experience an adverse health effect if exposed to a hazard”. For instance, the risk of developing cancer from smoking cigarettes is X times more likely to die of lung cancer than non-smokers or that a certain number of smokers per 100,000 smokers will likely develop lung cancer.
A hazard in turn can be defined as “any source of potential damage, harm or adverse health effects on something or someone under certain conditions at work”. This may include, for example, chemicals, electricity, work practices, welding, lifting, etc.
So simply put, risks are expressed as a probability or likelihood of developing a disease or getting injured, whereas hazards refer to the possible consequences (e.g., lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease from cigarette smoking, broken leg from falling off a ladder, eye injury from a grinding activity, etc.).
Risk perception is defined by the National Safety Council as “the ability of an individual to discern a certain amount of risk, and risk tolerance refers to a person’s capacity to accept a certain amount of risk”. As has been noted by many, these two concepts, while unique, are very much linked. For instance, many of the theories presented by researchers postulate that inability to accurately perceive risk may lead to higher risk tolerance levels, which can encourage high-risk behavior. In contrast, other researchers postulate that habitual engagement in high-risk behavior leads to higher risk tolerance and lower risk perception ability.
We are all aware that there are significant differences in risk perception and tolerance at an individual level. For instance, Alex Honnold and other climber free solos up massive rock faces; I hate heights and get nervous simply watching the video! We are also all probably aware that our perception of and tolerance to risk changes as we grow older. Thus, any general discussion of risk behaviour of groups, communities or populations is just that, a discussion with many generalities where we are looking for broader tendencies and patterns not the individual exceptions.
Factors Affecting Risk Perception and Risk Tolerance
The National Safety Council categorizes risk factors in three levels: macro, meso and micro.
Macro-level factors include the safety culture and leadership of an organization. For instance, workers employed by an organization with a positive safety culture – an environment with high emphasis on safe work procedures and commitment to employee health and safety – were less likely to take risks than workers employed by an organization without a positive safety culture. Another macro-level factor affecting risk perception and tolerance is enforcement and organizational trust. Research in this area suggests that people are more likely to take risks when they do not believe that there will be sanctions for their high-risk behavior , or when they do not believe that their employing organizations are concerned with their safety. In the workplace, this means that workers who trust that management is committed to employee safety and health are less likely to take risks.
Meso-level factors influencing how people perceive and tolerate risk include pressure from peers both within and outside the workplace can cause people to take risks that go against their better judgment. In workplaces, new employees may start taking unsafe shortcuts while performing job tasks because other more seasoned employees are doing so. While a new worker may initially perceive these shortcuts as dangerous, the desire to conform to group activities is strong, even if those activities are high-risk.
Micro-level factors affecting risk tolerance are related to an individual’s level of knowledge regarding a situation. Those who are less informed of a situation are less likely to take risks, while those with more knowledge are more likely to have higher levels of risk tolerance. The caveat here is that this refers only to the individual’s own perception of knowledge, which may not be an actual objective assessment.
Mearns and Yule (2009) examined published literature on cross-cultural differences in attitudes, perceptions and beliefs regarding safety, safety climate (perceived management commitment to safety) and risk-taking behaviour in workforce members of a multi-national engineering organisation operating in six countries. The results suggest that more proximal influences such as perceived management commitment to safety and the efficacy of safety measures exert more impact on workforce behaviour and subsequent accident rates than fundamental national values.
Educational Status, Age and Worker Perception of Workplace Safety
Gyekye and Salminen (2009) studied Ghanian industrial workers and showed significant differences between higher-educated and their lower-educated counterparts. In particular, the results indicated a positive association between education and safety perception. Higher-educated workers recorded the best perceptions on safety, indicated the highest level of job satisfaction, were the most compliant with safety procedures and recorded the lowest accident involvement rate.
In another study done by Gyekye and Salminen (2009) studied the same Ghanian industrial workers and showed significant a positive association between age and safety perception. Older workers had the best perceptions on safety, indicated the highest level of job satisfaction, were the most compliant with safety procedures, and recorded the lowest accident involvement rate.
They concluded that from a practical perspective, understanding education-related and age-related perceptions of workplace safety would benefit management's decisions regarding workers' adaptability, general work effectiveness, accident frequency, and implementation of safety management policies.
Why Worker Take Part in Unsafe Behavior
Choudhry and Fang (2008) investigated construction accidents in Hong Kong by interviewing accident victims. The findings indicated that workers were involved in unsafe behavior because of: a lack of safety awareness; to exhibit of being ‘tough guys’; work pressure; co-workers’ attitudes; and other organizational, economic and psychological factors. The study concluded that the results substantiate the significant role of management; safety procedure; psychological and economic factors; self-esteem; experience; performance pressure; job security; and education as well as safety orientation and training.
Mohamed et al (2009) carried out a similar study in Pakistan. They noted that construction workers’ attitude towards safety is influenced by their perception of risk, management, safety rules and procedures. In particular, it was found that the majority of workers have a good degree of risk awareness and self-rated competence. Additionally, workers’ intentional behaviour was empirically explained by their attitudes towards their own and management’s safety responsibilities, as well as their perception of the risk they are generally exposed to in their workplace. The paper also reveals that workers operating in a more collective and higher uncertainty avoidance environment, are more likely to have safety awareness and beliefs, which can exhibit safer on-site behaviour.
So, What Does This All Mean to the HSE Professional?
From the discussion above, there are some clear messages with respect to risk perception, risk tolerance and safety issues in the workplace:
- Cross-cultural differences in risk perception and risk tolerance are less important to safe worker behaviour than other macro, meso and mico factors. This was frankly surprising to me as I had expected that I would have found research suggesting that cultural background was important with respect to risky behavior by workers. Instead, the research suggests that risky worker behaviour we often observe at sites in developing countries is more a function of other macro, meso and micro factors rather than the cultural background of the workers. So, don't use the cultural/national background of your workers as an excuse for poor safety performance!
- Safety culture is important. This seems to be irrefutable and has been concluded in many studies covering a broad range of workers in many countries. If you provide these workers with an opportunity to work at a site with positive safety culture then they will take less risks.
- An educated workforce is a safer workforce. Educated workers take less risk than uneducated workers. This does not mean you need to hire Ph.D.s to dig ditches, but it does suggest that providing training and educational opportunities to workers will help reduce accidents.
- Older workers are safer workers. Experienced workers typically engage in less risky behaviour than inexperienced workers. So, embrace the older workers and empower them to help guide the younger workers.
- Peer pressure if important. Workers respond to the pressure of their peers. This is good if the peer pressure if for safe working behaviour, but not good if the peers exhibit poor risk judgement! Be cognizant of this and explore ways to influence groups and key leader behavior.
I trust this is useful in some small manner both for those with the challenging job of directly managing HSE issues in developing countries. Please share your insights in the comments sections below.
Thanks for reading. Keep safe. Be healthy. Respect your environment.
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