Calculators, Matrices and Mumbo Jumbo Risk Assessment

Calculators, Matrices and Mumbo Jumbo Risk Assessment

imageThere is no more critical question the safety industry needs to ask than, ‘what is the trajectory?’ Or, ‘Where is this taking us?’ Unfortunately, the safety industry doesn’t ask this question, especially with regard to the social and psychological by-products of its goals and activities. Unfortunately, this form of critical thinking (teleological thinking) is not in the parameters of the WHS curriculum, neither is there any study of critical issues associated with ethics. What this means is that Safety ends up with countless superficial fads and distractions that create the delusion of tackling risk. Then it normalizes, institutionalises and habituates these fads so that they become unquestioned and impossible to jettison.

The development of risk assessment mechanisms like risk calculators and matrices should only ever be understood as, a strained attempt to objectify risk in control of the unexpected.

Unfortunately, Safety is now burdened with so many curves, pyramids and a myriad of models that have become objects to blindly defend rather than critiqued for effectiveness. What is worse, the social and psychological trajectory of many of these objects (in time) become harmful, creating new delusions that risk has been assessed and managed.

What the discussion in this blog seeks to show is that the development of these objects doesn’t really help tackle risk but rather creates a whole new confusion in language and discourse in thinking about risk, Safety mumbo jumbo.

Last week I was browsing the illustrious pages of Linkedin and came across the promotion and projection of ‘superstar’ safety in the form of a ‘dropped objects calculator’. Upon asking about the effectiveness of this object and how it worked I was met with the usual tirade of insults that indicated a culture that equates questioning with negativity, inexperience and anti-safety mindedness. Linkedin is now the last place one will find a culture of learning moreover, social media tends to normalize every dumb down idea in Safety on the market because critique is unwelcome and ‘academic’. In the end the loser is Safety itself, unable to accommodate the analysis of disciplines outside of its own comfort zone. Name calling is the defense of the indefensible.

So, what I would like to do in this blog is have a look at these calculators and matrices and see what they are about and what is their value, from a social psychological perspective. Of course, the development of colour matrices and calculators now seem to adorn the pages of every risk assessment. Indeed, such coloured devices have now become so normalized (and habituated) that one cannot conduct an assessment of risk without having one. One can’t critique these objects without unquestioned defense and projection of a litany of insults.

Matrices and calculators are a quest for the measurement and control of uncertainty. Safety is an industry that is captivated by the ideology ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ and has now drifted in less than 30 years to ‘valuing what can be measured rather than measuring what is of value’.

It is a truism that most safety people spend the bulk of their time focused on metrics aided by calculators and matrices that shift focus from subjects (people) to objects. Unfortunately, the quest to measure risk is fraught with many problems because risk can’t be objectively ‘measured’. Trying to define what factors will result in what kind of harm cannot be undertaken definitively. Safety cannot be measured. One friend recently bumped his head in a motel foyer and is in a coma in hospital and another in an accident at 100 kms an hour and walked away without a scratch.

There are ample orthodox critiques of matrices and calculators and these are listed at the end of this blog for those who want to actually include research to their perspective. Also at the end of this blog is a list of essential reading on risk. Rather than review or rehash past work on the risk of using risk matrices, the rest of this blog will explore the social psychological by-products of risk matrices and calculators. So here is the guiding question:

What are the key Social Psychological Issues associated with risk matrices and calculators?

1 – There are many social psychological concerns associated with the grab bag of ‘tricks’ and objects thrown onto the safety market. One deeply concerning trend is the idea that anything is better than nothing. This totally ignores the hidden trajectory of bad ideas and sanctions the perpetuation of ‘noise’ in the safety space. The truth is all actions and ideas have a hidden curriculum (, that is, ideas are not neutral and have by-products and trade-offs that are hidden only to be discovered in time. The drift of the ‘something is better than nothing’ idea is ‘chuck anything out there, any action must be both positive and better than nothing’.

I look at the worship of Heinrich’s Pyramid and associated distortions (in every WHS text) and, Reason’s swiss cheese and despair of how these have ended up warping any sense of helpful approach to safety. Both have been distorted well beyond any of their original intentions. Yet, Safety clings to these constructs and models as gospel, defending the Bible with all the gusto of a fundamentalist. The fact that these and many safety tools are now beyond question is evidence that their use has been objectified and culturally normalised as true and effective.

2 – What is strange in many of these papers on risk matrices (listed at the end of this blog) is that each clearly articulates many weaknesses (over time) and the valuelessness of effort invested in them. Then most papers go on and say therefore such tools are the best we have and we should continue to use them! Smith states: ‘There is a clear risk in an unquestioning, unchallenging reliance on safety management systems and safety processes more generally. Not only have they not managed safety risks, they may increase risk, or in some cases positively contribute to an accident’. (Management Obligations for Health and Safety, p. 6). Bory’s calls this ‘the illusion of safety’.

More on this in a collaborative book I am releasing with Greg later this year entitled: ‘Risky Conversations, The Law, Social Psychology and Risk’.

3 – One of the great problems with matrices and calculators is the endorsement of the measurement of objects as an effective language and discourse (power underneath language) in risk. The endorsement of a mathematical discourse in the safety industry simply helps shift the emphasis away from people onto a counting approach to managing risk. For example, rather than conversations about risk, resilience and learning, a dropped objects calculator shifts the emphasis to the physics of weight and velocity rather than the way humans make decisions. Even here, the shape of the object, velocity and weight of the object become the language of what Safety is all about.

Once safety becomes the discourse in objects, the focus shifts to the colours and model away from the fundamentals of decision making in tackling risk. The language of zero does the same, setting the object of safety to numerics and metrics then defines Safety itself. Poor old Safety the only industry that thinks pissy and petty things defines the management of risk.

4 – The fact that matrices and calculators become the accepted model for tackling risk then anchors safety people to them. The anchoring of effectiveness to tools and models helps the distortion and mis-proportionate focus on risk. Even the orthodox model for risk management in the Standard (ISO AS/NZS 31000:2009) is comprised of one third metrics, one third activity and one third communication and consultation (as below).


5 – Unfortunately, the safety industry’s focus on measurement is totally out of proportion to this model. So few people in Safety either study or develop any sophistication in skills in communication, motivation and consultation. Indeed, on most occasions when I speak to safety people very few have ever seen or read the Handbook on Communication and Consultation about Risk (HB 327: 2010)

6 – One cannot think about the trajectory, by-products and trade-offs triggered by models and ideas without understanding the power of ‘priming’ and ‘framing’ of the unconscious. Our words matter, they are the bedrock on which we build our worldview. Symbols matter, they infuse the unconscious with enormous power which is why the advertising industry and big business know all about it. Unfortunately, little old safety thinks it’s all just semantics. Isn’t it strange that Richard Branson will take a backyard business to court for using his brand and safety thinks that zero is just a word and aspiration.

7- One of the interesting things about the WHS Act and Regulation is that neither seek any quantification of risk. The fundamentals of ALARP and Due Diligence acknowledge the subjectivity of risk and the contextualisation of risk because they know it cannot and should not be objectified. The more safety seeks to quantify risk, the more it drifts away from the necessary subjectivity of tackling risk. This quest to quantify risk endorses, habituates and normalises inconsistencies in risk and the belief that arbitrary assessment is definitive. Of course once we have ‘objectified’ a measure any deviance can now be deemed ‘stupid’ because, ‘safety is a choice you make’ ( ).

8 – From my observations over the last 10 years on site, what matrices and calculators tend to do with workers is create a kind of ‘game’. Let’s call this game ‘Do anything you can to get the box down from red to green’. What has happened in time is that workers are expected to be able to affect the assessment of risk by some arbitrary proposal in a risk assessment. This drives the idea that risk can and must be minimised when the Act and Regulation know that many high risk tasks must be undertaken and cannot be minimised. Unfortunately once we play with a matrix the power of Centring Bias cuts in. Centring Bias is the tendency for people to avoid extremes. Validity is then given to moderate changes and false risk reductions supported by a change in colour. What will always remain is the nature of uncertainty and the colour (and change) gives a sense of certainty that one has managed or controlled risk.

9 – One concern with risk matrices and calculators is the psychological effect of accepting arbitrary change as objective. The normalising of arbitrary change as objective tends to generate overconfidence, particularly the more a workplace accepts and uses a matrix as an objectified measure. In organising, humans tend to want to reduce equivocality and dissonance in the tension between the necessity of risk and the psychology of mitigation. The more this tension is accepted and supported by colours and symbols, the more people relax in critical thinking, questioning and doubt (dismissing chronic unease). The colours tend to psychologically provide semiotic comfort over time that prediction can be measured and controlled. Of course, we never ‘know’ either likelihood or consequence yet use the matrix and associated language to imagine that we do. This is why humans are surprised when things go wrong.

10 – Once Safety has developed all these tools for measurement, the data must be collected and registers must be filled. Of course, risk registers are incomprehensible, neither can so much data be contained, creating an thirst for exponential collection as if the process of naming is the same as action. It seems that the cataloguing of risk is the same as communicating and consulting about risk. The by-products of volume and collecting of registers is that Safety considers the power of prediction (omniscience) possible and so frustrates itself by it’s own denial of fallibility. Why do we need to converse about things that we imagine are certain? If the matrix tells us that risk has been reduced from red to green then let’s march ahead. Rather than hold risk as a wicked problem, the matrix and calculators make people think that risk is a problem that can be ‘tamed’.

There are many other hidden by-products in the development of these matrices and calculators but I guess listing ten is a start. How often does Safety latch on to an idea, turn it into an ideology and then it can never be shifted. One only need look at other ideas that cannot be jettisoned, the Federal Safety Commission is a good example. Understood by the industry as an absolute embuggerance, who is going to suggest it be dumped? Who is going to be first to dump a risk matrix off their risk assessment process?

When these objects develop a life of their own and become institutionalised there is no turning back, we simply multiply and multiply but seem to never be able to take away. The fear of getting rid of a bad idea and harmful ideology is maintained by the institutionalisation of unquestioned non-critical thinking in the Safety industry. And, if it’s in the Safety Bible, it must be objectively true and effective.

Research on Risk Matrices and Calculators

Ale and Slater: Risk Matrix Basics

Borys: Exploring risk-awareness as a cultural approach to safety: exposing the gap between work as imaged and work as performed.

Click to access 3_Borys.pdf

Cowley and Pickering: Risk Matrices: implied accuracy and False Assumptions

Cox, Tony: What’s Wrong with Risk Matrices?

Cox, L. A. 2009. Risk Analysis of Complex and Uncertain Systems. New York City, New York: Springer.

Daff: Advice on the risk estimation matrix used by DAFF Biosecurity as part of the Import Risk Analysis process…/~/…/report.ashx

Elmontsri: Review of the strengths and weaknesses of risk matrices

Hubbard, D., The Failure of Risk Management, Why it’s Broken and How to Fix It. Download complete text here:

Nardi, B., and O’Day, V., (2000) Information Ecologies, Using Technology with Heart. MIT Press, London.

Oboni & Oboni: Is it True that PIGs Fly when Evaluating Risks of Tailings

Management Systems?

Preve: Risk and Uncertainty Management List of Books

Risk and the Matrix. Critical Uncertainties

Roth: Visualizing Risk – The Use of Graphical Elements in Risk Analysis and Communications

Talbot: What’s right with risk matrices?

Thomas & Bratvold: The Risk of Using Risk Matrices

Click to access The-Risk-of-Using-Risk-Matrices1.pdf

Thomas: Demonstrating Adequate Management of Risks: The Move from. Quantitative to Qualitative Risk AssessmentsMasters Thesis

Tufte, E., (2001) The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Graphics Press. Chesire Connecticut.

Ziliak, S., and McLoskey, D., (2008) The Cult of Statistical Significance. Uni of Michagan Press. Michigan.

Essential Reading on Risk

Bammer, G., and Smithson, M., (eds.) (2008) Uncertainty and Risk: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Earthscan, London.

Evans, D. (2012). Risk intelligence: how to live with uncertainty. London, UK: Free Press.

Gardner, D., (2008) Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. Virgin Books, London.

Gigerenzer, G., (2007) Gut Feelings: intelligence of the unconscious. Viking, New York.

Gilovich (1991) How we Know What Isn’t so: the Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. Free Press, New York.

Kasperson, J., and Kasperson, R., (2005) Social Contours of Risk Vol 1. Earthscan, London.

Kasperson, J., and Kasperson, R., (2005) Social Contours of Risk Vol 2. Earthscan, London.

Mlodinow, L., (2012) Subliminal, How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behaviour. Pantheon Books, New York.

Noth, W., (1995) Handbook of Semiotics. Indiana Uni Press, Bloomington.

Pidgeon, N., Kasperson, R., and Slovic, P., (2003) The Social Amplification of Risk. Cambridge. London.

Renn, O., (2008) Risk Governance: Coping with Uncertainty in a Complex World. Earthscan, London.

Slovic, P., (2000) Perception of Risk. Earthscan, London.

Slovic, P., (2010) Feeling of Risk: New Perspectives on Risk Perception. Earthscan, London)

Sunstein, C., (2002) Risk and Reason. Cambridge University Press, London.

Taleb. N., (2012) Anti Fragile. Allen lane, London.

Trimpop, R., (1994) Psychology of Risk Taking Behaviour. North Holland, Amsterdam.

Zinn, J., (ed) (2008) Social Theories of Risk and Uncertainty, An Introduction. Blackwell, London.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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