My field of industrial health and safety is complex. There are many sub-specialties, with people who focus on things such as biomechanics, hearing safety, nuclear safety, and more.
But many of the things we do can be applied to everyday life, in simple ways.
In the safety field we talk about risk assessment and hazard analysis, but protecting yourself as you go through your life, really boils down to planning and decision-making.
I spent many summers on my motorbike as a kid, and I recall that I carried a small first-aid kid. Years later, I learned to fly airplanes in the North and I always carried a large survival kit. Some bush pilots even carried chain saws in case they had to land on a remote lake.
I thought I planned well, but the pros did it even better .
Training is ultimately planning. I enjoyed watching the reality show Survivorman. The eponymous star would strand himself in some remote location and live off the land. He made it look a lot easier than it was. The show was really about showing his wilderness knowledge; most of us are better off with a few supplies.
Whether it is having extra canned food at home for a power outage or carrying a water bottle and a water-repellent jacket when you’re hiking, your plan doesn’t have to be complicated.
On the job, I try to always anticipate the likelihood of a mishap, potential consequences, and what tools and training we need to prepare. That is risk assessment, and you can apply it anywhere.
When I was learning to fly in the North, a requirement for my licence was to make a cross-country trip. I had already gotten lost a couple of times while flying that winter, calling the airport to guide me back home.
On the day of the big flight, after checking the weather and filing my flight plan, I took off. It was mid-winter and about an hour later, the clouds ahead of me were getting lower and lower, so it was decision time. I could fly lower and continue on for another hour to my destination, quickly refuel and fly home, or I could turn around now.
A lot of small-plane accidents are due to bad weather, and there was no pressure to get the flight done on that day, so I turned around.
Often on the job, we do something called a field-level risk assessment. This is a simple decision-making checklist tool that asks you to look at the job ahead and try to consider all the factors involved. Are conditions safe? Do you have the necessary tools, equipment, and skills? Does the job need to be done now or later?
You always have the choice to either do something or not—we do risk assessments constantly, whether we realize it or not. I do it every day when I leave my house.
I live near a street that intersects a busy highway, which I will not use unless I absolutely need to, since I know that it’s less safe to drive there during heavy traffic. A five-minute detour lets me reduce the risk, a fair trade-off for the extra driving time.
The safer choice usually takes more time, effort, and money, which is why there is a need for safety professionals. We figure out how to get the best outcome with the least risk. The industry jargon for this is “ALARA,” meaning reducing the risk “as low as reasonably achievable.”
Pressure in decision making, whether external or internal, in some industries can be dealt with through training. As a pilot, I practised what to do in all sorts of emergency situations, so that when the bad thing happens, my decision is already made (through the training).
In some industries there is even special training in how to deal with peer pressure on the job, avoiding the pressure to take shortcuts. This is often called “human factors” training.
In our everyday life, there is the temptation to just get things done, taking shortcuts and ignoring precautions. Any activities, even routine ones like getting a shower or driving to work, come with hazards.
The trick to is to balance the risk you are willing to take against accomplishing your goal. Chances are part of what makes life fun; just do a little planning first and a little decision-making, and assess your risks as you go.