Hazard Analysis: Working In A Perfect World

Hazard analysis is key to appropriately protecting workers from dangers in the workplace, but too often we do a mediocre job by pretending that the workplace is perfect and all workers will never make mistakes, take risks or behave badly. Instead, we should use the "What Would Doris Do?" approach to portray real world risks. Here's how it works.

Hazard analysis is key to appropriately protecting workers from dangers in the workplace, but too often we do a mediocre job. Protecting workers from the hazards they are likely to encounter can’t be a half measure. Most workplaces would benefit from better and more accurate hazard analysis and risk management. Like Goldilocks, Hazard Analysis needs to be just right — not overly protective, but also not overly reliant on common sense, probability, or good luck.

People conducting Hazard Analysis often tend to focus too greatly on the physical hazards endemic to so many workplaces. This makes sense because physical hazards are easy to spot and the hazards associated with them are easy to predict. Unfortunately, the hazards most likely to result in serious injury or fatalities are also the greatest source of variation: human behavior.

This is the point where I typically launch into one of my tiresome rants about the evils about Behavior Based Safety, but not now. The reality is that hazard analysis must consider human behavior because it is so unpredictable and potentially lethal.

Studies have shown that the average person makes between five and eight errors an hour. Most of these mistakes are benign and have no real consequences. Human errors seem to be our subconsciousness mind experimenting with the safety of our surroundings . . . a means of testing the safety of rapid adaptation. Sometimes the result is serendipitous discovery, but in other cases the result is injury.

Many people who conduct hazard analysis create work plans and Job Safety Analysis (JSA) plans for a perfect world. Even though we know for certain that people will make mistakes and there is nothing shy of rewiring the human brain that can be done to prevent mistakes, we can still prevent people from being harmed from these mistakes if we accurately predict the mistakes and implement countermeasures to prevent the associated injuries.

Risk is part of life. A hazard analysis that doesn’t predict and address the probability that people will take risks — from shortcuts to bad habits — isn’t worth very much, at least in terms of protecting workers. Hazard analysis should clearly identify the areas where workers are most likely going to take risks. In terms of risks, the likelihood of risk-taking and the level of risk-taking is directly proportionate to the risk-to-reward ratio. The greater the disparity between the perceived rewards to the probability of failure, the more likely one is to take the risk.

Whenever I talk about the need for a comprehensive hazard analysis, invariably people push back in the name of common sense. “Can’t we assume people have a little ‘common sense’?” The answer is “no” because there is very little common sense in the world.

Common sense is the product of a shared understanding of a situation by members of a population. As anyone who is from a small town can attest to, common sense decreases as the population size increases. In a small population, it’s easy to create solid mores, values, and taboos — these all grow out of decades of shared experience, the fabled “tribal knowledge” that corporate big wigs are always so desperate to capture. Unfortunately, as the population grows, common sense/common knowledge shrinks inversely.

So counting on people to use “common sense” effectively counts on luck to protect people.

People can be damned stupid and reckless, but the “perfect world” hazard analysis seldom captures the outlandish and reckless risks that an (admittedly small) portion of the population may take on the job site. Unless we acknowledge that there is a chance — regardless of how small — that workers will take outrageous and reckless chances, we can’t adequately protect workers from this recklessness.

Recently I encountered a situation that exemplifies this tendency for some workers to take outrageous risks. I was outside a car rental office a couple of weeks ago when a U.S. Postal Service truck turned right onto a side walk and proceeded to drive approximately 40 ft down a public sidewalk. When I confronted her by asking “did you really just drive down the sidewalk?”, she snarled back “yes!” in defiance. “Don’t you have any regard for safety?” I asked. Her only response was a hissing sound that sounded like something between a viper and air escaping a punctured tire.

Finally, I asked her if what she did was legal. She smirked and said “yes” in the tone of voice of a petulant child. I phoned the local postal office, reported her behavior and was asked if the door was open (it was) and if she was wearing seat belts (she wasn’t). The person to whom I spoke told me that this woman had recently been disciplined for driving with the door of her vehicle open and for not wearing seat belts.

For those of you who don’t know, USPS jobs (at least those who drive company vehicles) rely on the workers having a valid driver’s license and a good driving record. I’ve dubbed this woman Doris (although I have no way of knowing her real name) and I have adapted the popular, “What would Jesus Do?” slogan to hazard analysis. I encourage people to ask “What Would Doris Do?” when conducting hazard analysis.

By asking what this addle-headed woman would do in a given work situation, those who conduct hazard analysis can compare irrational behavior with reasonable, appropriate and rational responses in a given situation.

If we continue to pretend that the workplace is perfect and all workers will never make mistakes, take risks or behave as if they are whacked out of their heads on drugs, we can never truly anticipate hazards in any sort of realistic context. When we recognize that we live — and, more importantly, work — inside an imperfect world, we can finally make appropriate decisions with respect to safety.

Phil La Duke

Phil La Duke is a partner in the Performance Assurance Practice at ERM: Environmental Resources Management, 3352 128th Avenue, Holland, MI 49424, 313-244-2525, You can also follow Phil and reach him on his blogs at

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