Remove "acceptable risk" from the safety mindset

Aug. 1, 2023
Move from actuarial to realism

We work around engineering marvels. The machines that move dirt, pave roads, and excavate trenches draw the attention of children and have spawned documentaries that amaze adults.

One of the most popular features of our magazine and web site is “Iron Works,” where Tom Berry reveals historical nuggets about construction equipment and the people who designed and built them. And many of us have children or grandchildren who sit mesmerized with “I Drive a Backhoe” or “Let’s Go, Trucks!”

The proverb “familiarity breeds contempt” has been around since the 4th century for good reason: It still rings true. We forget how powerful and destructive a 30,000-pound excavator can be because it moves and digs almost effortlessly. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “accident” as “an unfortunate and typically unforeseen event, a disaster, a mishap.” An accident is unintentional.

Yet they continue to happen. Recently, we ran a news item about an excavator operator who, despite asking a coworker on the ground for the location of a third worker and being assured that he was at another area of the site, backed over the worker. Was this an accident? Yes. Was it 100 percent preventable? Yes. Nobody laid eyes on the third worker to confirm that he was not standing behind the machine.

We address technologies that help prevent tragedies such as this. “Onboard cameras elevate job site safety” includes some key specifications for acquiring such systems. Mike Brennan, CEM, has written about how to develop a safety culture. We publish a monthly newsletter, “Safety 360,” that provides accident coverage and ideas to prevent them.

But reading about safety can only do so much. The posters and tailgate talks can only do so much. What needs to change is every person’s definition of acceptable risk. How little are we each willing to push so we finish on time, skipping over the tiniest precaution to avoid inconveniencing ourselves or drawing an “are you kidding me” glance from a coworker?

Acceptable risk is not an actuarial ratio developed by an insurance company. Acceptable risk is the small step we are all willing to take that puts someone else in danger. The way to eliminate acceptable risk is to recognize that any accident is unacceptable.

About the Author

Rod Sutton

I have served as the editorial lead of Construction Equipment magazine and ConstructionEquipment.com since 2001. 

Our mission is to help managers of heavy equipment and trucks to improve their performance in acquiring and managing their fleets. One way we do that is with our Executive Institute, where experts share information and ideas that will enable equipment managers to accurately manage equipment costs so that they can deliver the optimum financial benefits to their organizations.

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