Latest On Safety By Phil LaDuke

by Phil LaDuke on April 18, 2017

in Phil LaDuke

I linked out of LinkedIn over 12 months ago and cant say I’ve missed it! It seems that it has denigrated even further and given a platform and voice to bullies and those who would likely just be ignored elsewhere.

Phil has asked me to ask if you could give him a little support as an unpaid contributor to Entrepreneur magazine.  There are some 67 great articles in there written by Phil and most would have some relevance to safety and risk. 

Please go and have a read of a few and support Phil by using the share buttons to tweet, share on facebook, or post to LinkedIn.  Here is the link to his page

Academics: Go Back To Your Ivory Towers

By Phil La Duke

imageI really need to stop reading LinkedIn discussions. Recently Alan Quilley (a smart guy and truly thought provoker) posted a link to his article Risk Analysis and Management in a discussion thread. True to form the mouth breathers and water heads attacked the article like howling rabid jackals. I don’t, no let’s make that I WON’T, rehash the argument, but sufficed to say, there was a lot of trash slung by smug academics who have never once set foot in anything approaching a medium-to high-risk workplace. Their claim was that the equation Quilley proffered, Risk = Probability x Severity x Exposure, was too simplistic and that Quilley didn’t understand the math.

There was some validity to the argument, which Quilley freely admitted. Both sides agreed that the average safety person doesn’t really understand the nuances of risk, and for that matter probability. I may not have accurately captured Alan’s arguments, and if you’re reading this Alan, my sincerest apologies, but my intent as I have stated is not to rehash the argument, but it did get me thinking about how irresponsible some safety practitioners apply concepts they only sort of understand; strike that; that they don’t understand at all.

Let’s take probability; pretty easy right? If you’ve ever flipped a coin or shot craps you understand probability, right? Wrong. There is a lot more to understanding probability than calculating the odds. There is sample size, and margin of error, and so on. But let’s deal with the simplest definition of probability I could find (I won’t site a source because it appears in about nine different places and none of them site a source so I won’t give credit to someone who is plagiarizing, and before anyone accuses me of doing the same, I freely and wholeheartedly admit that I am not the author of this definition): “Probability is the chance that a given event will occur divided by the number of possible outcomes.” (Feel free to argue amongst yourself). Probability isn’t subjective; it’s absolute. The probability of flipping a normally weighted coin heads side up is 1 in 2 or 50:50, but even in this simple example there is a third, extremely remote possibility that the coin will not flip on either side but land on its side; (let’s just chock that up to “margin of error”) even so, there is a remote possibility that the coin will land on its edge. So while it is generally accepted that the chance of a flipped coin is 50:50 it really isn’t. If we further consider that all coins are not the exact weight and shape (whether because of minor deviations in the minting process, wear from the time and condition of the circulation of the coin, or some other reason for which I can’t imagine) then there is even less certainty of the 50:50 probability. The point is, if we can’t even count on the purity of the odds of a coin flip how can we expect to calculate the odds of an injury.

We tend to think of the probability of injuries as fairly binary—there are two possible outcomes: injury or no injury. This thinking sounds reasonable but it is deeply flawed. Take a look at a person completely a task as part of his or her job. There are more than two outcomes, clearly there is the chance that the worker will be uninjured, we cannot treat the employee being injured as a single outcome because there are multiple causes for a worker injury. Not only that, there are several other outcomes we may forget to consider. For example, a worker could be killed, or at the other extreme the worker could suffer a near miss.

Just as the weight and shape of an imperfect coin can artificially impact probability so can things like the worker’s capability (training, natural aptitude, risk taking, behavioral drift, performance inhibitors, etc.) the process capability (process tolerance, reliability, etc.) in fact there are so many variables at play in worker injuries it’s a wonder we try to calculate probability at all.

To be fair to Quilley, his formula was never meant to be a scientific predictor of a given outcome, rather it is a workable formula for prioritizing injuries, and yes to be fair to the academics Quilley has over simplified probability. So what are we to do with all this? I for my part agree with Alan. The safety practitioners and frontline supervisors shouldn’t have to work differential equations to calculate risk. We need a practical, usable, and simple way to determine whether or not a given task is too risky to perform, which risks on which to concentrate, and which risks are more likely to cause the most severe injuries. A safety practitioner should not have to be Euclid to calculate probability, but then again one should also know that his or her calculation of probability is little more than a guess. A good guess to be sure, but a guess nonetheless. It’s an educated guess based on years of experience

To some extent it comes down to just plain sense. We know drunk driving is dangerous because we have seen too many tragic accidents caused because a driver was drunk, and you don’t have to be Pythagoras to foresee that a teen (or worse an elderly) driver texting is a high risk behavior.

What I am saying, in my round about way, is that arguments over whether or not a safety professional can accurate calculate probability of injuries is of far less important than whether or not we can prioritize the correction of hazards. Someone once said, “if you can’t say something nice about someone, then don’t say anything at all”. To the academics who went to such pains to argue against Quilley’s points I say, “shut up”. Not that I want to stifle freedom of speech, but yammering on and on about how wrong someone is without offering some useful counter suggestion is tantamount to bullying, and as much as I enjoy bullying, I say to the academics, take your theories back to the ivy towers where you can poison the minds of tomorrow’s leaders; they’re not welcome here and we’ve got work to do.

READ THE ARTICLE HERE: Academics: Go Back To Your Ivory Towers

  • Bernard Corden

    The paper I sent Rob from the EMBO in Heidelberg by Tannert et al is worth reading. It addresses the objective and subjective elements of risk and offers an interesting taxonomy via their igloo of ignorance or uncertainty:

    Another interesting read is from ejolt:

  • Ladukepc


    I assume you mean THIS blog and not the blog to which it is linked because I don’t think I have EVER advocated for a more complex method of safety. You’re right probability+severity+exposure is a huge simplification, but let’s say you are working at a worksite with 200 hazards. How do you prioritize which ones need immediate attention, which can be contained for a short time before a permanent corrective action must be taken, and one that can be contained indefinitely or at least for a lengthy bit of time? Do we spend a week or so working out complex equations to determine which one needs to get fixed right now? There is a trade off between practicality and complete accuracy. You can’t accurately calculate probability without first and foremost knowing how to do the math. But also you need to understand confidence levels, appropriate sample size, and much more. And let us say you take the time to do that, what of it? What do you have that is so much more valuable that it’s worth expending your time and energy than to look at a hazard and subjectively decide that it is either highly probable, somewhat probable, or not probable. Furthermore, severity itself is a probability. We are asking ourselves what is the probability than an injury will be fatal versus causing an amputation versus causing an injury requiring medical treatment versus something that will merely require first aid. Again we have a sample size of one so there can be virtually no statistical validity to our calculation of probability and it is, as Rob suggests, completely subjective. And again, what do we gain if we WERE able to have an exact, scientifically marvelous calculation of the precise probability of each of these outcomes? As for exposure, that is a fairly easy computation to make, how many times does a worker interact with the hazard in a given time period (of course this too could be an oversimplification because one would also have to calculate the extent as well as the duration of the exposure). So if we don’t simplify we are expecting a safety professional, or a supervisor to work out all these individual 600 calculations while they are under pressure to push production. Plus the time it takes to complete these calculations extends the duration of exposure, so there’s that. This isn’t an academic exercise, this is what people in the workplace face everyday.

    I don’t want to sound accusatory so please don’t take this that way, but given the scenario of having to deal with 200 hazards what would you propose be a better, albeit more complicated approach?

    • riskcurious


      Yes, that’s correct that I was referring to the blog not your linked blog.

      To clarify, I wasn’t advocating more complex algorithms for frontline personnel to assess risk. To the contrary, I was actually querying the basis upon which we assume that utilisation of formulas such as this provided better outcomes in understanding and prioritising risks than other less “objective” methods (I am not asserting that it definitely doesn’t, but am just querying the evidence to support this claim – if there is, then I would be very interested to read further).

      Whilst you suggest that this formula is simple and easy to apply, my own experience is that requiring frontline personnel to use these types of formulas results in more time being expended arguing about the “correct” answer to the formula, than in understanding the nature of the hazards and the controls need to minimise the associated risk to an acceptable level. And , undertaking such risk “analysis” doesn’t tend to enhance or change beliefs about the level of risk and need for treatment but rather greater confidence in the accuracy of the assessment than is warranted (another potential unwanted by-product that warrants consideration).

      With regard to the discussion regarding objective vs subjective probability, I do not claim to be a risk expert but was pointing out that it is generally accepted that these are two differing forms of probability that are still being discussed and reformulated – and may well be two entirely different concepts. So personally I would be cautious about making definitive statements that probability is completely objective or subjective and instead try to understand the basis of each argument, what it offers and the respective limitations. As an aside, the way in which probability is being talked about here seems to lend more towards an objective definition (i.e. that “actual” probability exists out there in the world but we just don’t have the data/information to accurately find the “real” value). Please correct me if I am misinterpreting this.

  • riskcurious

    As a reader of the blogs on this site for some time, I find this article somewhat perplexing (enough to spend the time to comment). This blog itself often pleads for others to stop over-simplifying concepts and problems and at times can be quite ruthless in its discussion of “dumb down” safety people (or at least from an outside observer it appears this way). I think we can all agree that reducing to risk to a mere product of Probability, Severity and Exposure is a huge over-simplification. So I am having trouble understanding why this particular over-simplification is defended as useful and practical, where simplification in other areas of safety is treated with such contempt.

    I am assuming the basis of this argument is that in this case, there is no harm done in simplifying and use of this formula will improve risk prioritisation at the frontline. But on what evidence is this based? How do we know that using this formula achieves better outcomes for risk treatment than allowing personnel to use their natural abilities to assess risk? And why would we assume that this particular simplification doesn’t have any unwanted by-products (e.g. perpetuating the belief that safety is achieved through rational choices, redirection of focus to coming up with the “correct” number from the formula, or if an incident does occur then surely this must be due to the failure of the individual to correctly assess the risk using the formula provided). I am having trouble seeing how this particular case is somehow immune to such challenges (be it by academics or others).

    Now to be clear, I have not seen the actual comments made in LinkedIn, and certainly wouldn’t condone the degeneration of healthy challenge and discussion into personal attack. However, learning requires our assumptions and beliefs to be challenged, and writers on blogs such as this should welcome this. We need a mix of academic and practical experience, diverse and differing perspectives, to enrich our own and collective understanding if we are going to make real improvement. So I can’t see any value in telling academics to “go back to their ivory towers”. And perhaps this particular event provides an opportunity for ourselves to ensure that our own writing would not be perceived in a similar manner (as slinging trash or bullying).

    PS – Rob, the assertion that risk is 100% subjective is a fairly extreme stance that many would not take. My understanding the nature of probability as a concept remains unresolved and is the subject of ongoing debate in mathematics and philosophy.

    • Very simple is objects and hazards and identifying and controlling them. Extremely complex and subjective is predicting and understanding how humans will interact with those hazards and react to those controls.

    • Rob Long

      Dear riskcurious, how we see our world through our eyes and our experiences is the basis for our attributions, assumptions and interpretations from which we form a worldview or paradigm. We see uncertainty through many filters and whatever is our lens on life is our subjectivity in understanding and articulating risk, hence also our view on faith, hope and trust. I find the discussions by Kuhn and Feyerbend helpful in this regard.
      When I was a kid we were told science and maths were objective, just like the Bible and religion, now as you rightly recognise, there is no resolution to the debates in science and maths and so we have discovered that even science and maths are philosophies and subjective. The book by BRiggs is also helpful

      • riskcurious

        Hi Rob,

        I am not disagreeing that subjective probability is one form of probability that is a useful measure of degrees of belief. I am just less willing to completely dismiss objective probability completely (as a different concept). I do think it is necessary to try to be clearer about what definition and approach we are using when we are talking about probability (and/or uncertainty) and be particularly careful if expressing “subjective probability” in the form of numbers.

        Actually, I was never taught that mathematics was objective. I was taught that there are two differing views – one that it is out there to be researched and discovered, and the other that it is constructed.

  • Bernard Corden

    Dear Phil,

    Here is some more fuel for the fire:

    Probability, frequency and exposure

    The dichotomy between probability and frequency must be understood from first principles with respect to system failure.

    The probability of an undesirable event is a measure of the likelihood of that event occurring. It’s a real number between 0 and 1.
    it’s equal to the ratio of the number of times the system fails to the number of times it was studied.

    The frequency of failure on the other hand would mean the number of times the system fails within a specified time frame. It’s a real number greater than or equal to zero but less than infinity. Probability is a dimensionless quantity while frequency has a dimension of events per unit time.

    Probability p = f/e (consequences/trial)
    Frequency f = p x e (consequences/year)
    Exposure e = f/p (trials per year)

  • Bernard Corden

    The late LBJ made the infamous comment regarding Hoover, …….” Do we want this guy outside of the tent pissing in or inside of the tent pissing out”.

    Another very perceptive remark was ……” If you have two men in a room and they are agreeing with each other, ask yourself the question, which one is doing the thinking”

  • I find many discussion groups to be thought provoking and an avenue where I can learn. Unfortunately, in this world, there may be some who hold a view that their idea or view is the only way. From time to time, I may see and read a posting that I do not agree with (and at times might not understand) but that does not give me any reason to attack or belittle another person for sharing their view. For me, I might have to go away and do some research to learn more about the views presented. For some, a little bit of knowledge is dangerous. Years ago, I had an agreement with our plumber i.e. I would stick to policing and he would stick to plumbing.

    Like others, I have seen some with qualifications adopt a belief that they were the font of all knowledge and yet lacked the ability to communicate in a respectful manner. Barking out directions to comply without asking questions as to why a person is undertaking a task in a certain way only creates a barrier.

    My interest is in workplace bullying and yet I have found it to be one of the more complex and diverse topics confronting workplaces. There are many contributors to the topic across the world and all seem to have the same priority and that is to prevent and eliminate it from workplaces. Some contributors may have divergent views and rather than attack or denigrate them, I find it is far more beneficial to work in a collegiate, collaborative and problem solving manner, treating each other with respect and dignity.

    I learned many years ago that reading one book and believing that that was the only view would be a mistake. Reading one book should be the reason to read other books, to seek advice and contrary views from others, to share ideas and understanding, to engage on a journey of continual learning, and even at some stage, commit one’s own learning to paper so that others may learn. If we as individuals are not prepared to share information and treat others with respect and dignity, what is the point of contributing?

    • Rob Long

      Wise words Bernie. I get astounded at the one book masters or social media masters who with just a 5 minute read want to think that is the same as 40 years of research.

      • Rob, I mentor students and universally they seem to want to know ‘what is it like in the real world’ i.e. is what we are told in University what really happens in the workplace. Individuals should be encouraged to learn in diverse ways, understand theoretical and practical application of those theories and why workplaces might differ to what has been presented.

        Encouraging individuals to read widely from diverse and seemingly unrelated sources can stimulate the way they think, not only about their particular field of study, but also about themselves and how they learn. Adopting a singular focus does not develop a depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding. In many fields, one has to read widely to maintain currency of knowledge so that one develops that depth and breadth of understanding required to compare and contrast arguments being presented by other practitioners.

        In my personal view, I believe that some areas of interest seem to be commercially viable for some individuals who seek to ‘get a piece of the pie’. It is only when they commence on their path of action, that they understand that using a singular source as their sole reference point e.g. one book, one journal article is insufficient. As a case in point, workplace bullying seems to be a popular topic of interest to a diverse range of providers, educators and individuals.

        There are number publications, journal articles and Government publications that are by nature, required reading, and the list continues to grow on a daily basis when one includes Courts, Commission and Tribunal decisions. I think that in some cases, the use of the term ‘expert’ is not well founded by some well-intentioned people particularly when that person actively tells them that others know more about the topic, when the ‘expert’ may have content knowledge in relation to a specific area of that body of knowledge.

        There is an extensive body of knowledge relating to a diverse range of topics that we would all like to master. However, as individuals we may only come into ‘possession’ of a small part. At the same time, there may be others who possess parts of that knowledge that we should know about.

        Sharing knowledge increases our collective understanding of the complexity of issues involved. We should encourage those who are prepared (often at no cost) to share that knowledge. The five minute ‘experts’ may frustrate us all. However, by sharing what we know, we may assist them to identify the gaps they have but don’t know about (yet).

  • Chris Todd

    Unfortunately the way most safety people receive their training doesn’t provide them with any background knowledge of the area of expertise they are trying to make “safe”. For this reason they go by a book of rules and fail to see the fluidity of jobs especially in high risk areas such as building and construction. The “it worked once before so I will do the same thing across the board” is the template in use by most practitioners but fails to take into account different site specifics and work forces that may have different attitudes towards safety requirements.

    • Yeah many Safety Officers come out of cert Iv training convinced they are lawyers, doctors, engineers etc. Not blaming them as their trainer, employer and even the regulator may encourage this. Good Leaders admit they don’t know everything and will consult experts and academics as needed – balance and consultation between study and experience I believe is the key. Rob Sams wrote a good article about the need to pause and ponder rather than just plug and play:

    • Many safety people are afraid to be wrong and want a book that assures them they are right. If something goes wrong it’s then the book’s fault.

    • Chris Todd

      Most of the people that are having the safety placed on them are more expert on the work practices they conduct on a daily basis. I think the role of a good safety manger is to prompt them to think about the ways they are doing it rather than taking the easy road/quickest option every time. That is how culture will eventually change not through the collection of safety data.

      • Absolutely, one thing that would make a big difference in safety is more critical thinking – particularly in risk assessment and the by-products of controls

  • Bernard Corden

    Linked In and Facebook are incalculably Narcissistic. It is somewhat paradoxical that we are being told how to communicate by socially autistic people such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.
    These platforms are reminiscent of adolescents who communicated with their parents by affixing post it stickers to the fridge freezer compartment in the kitchen.
    No it’s done by Facebook or Twiiter.

  • Rob Long

    I just don’t get this denigration of academics by Safety. There seems to be no more prominent target in this industry whilst others seem to be conveniently overlooked. There should be a place for all in the debate about risk and safety regardless of what cohort one represents. Alan is certainly a big boy and much better than me in tolerating the dumb down specialists on safety Linkedin. I left that anti-social forum 12 months ago and it has been delightful allowing the pooling of ignorance to continue on its own. Meanwhile, for those who want to learn, the critical thinking in academia is not an ‘ivory tower’. This is a convenient metaphor to help others ignore its challenges and intelligence. We have to get past this stereotyping that circulates dumb down as the acceptable culture of safety, where critical thinking is branded as the enemy of safety. It’s funny how we want to see that specialist who has 12 years of full time study who is about to operate on our skull but reject the study of another selective academic as irrelevant. Goodness me, those who are implementing my programs in their workplaces will testify to the practical effectiveness of my ideas.

    • How else does one justify their own ignorance?

      • Rob Long

        I get a colonoscopy and endoscopy every year as both my parents had bowel and esophagus cancer and I don’t for one second begrudge their fee or the years they spent in academic research developing their knowledge. When I speak to my specialist I hardly understand anything he says and I am sure he doesn’t do this on purpose indeed, he tries to explain the complexities of my condition and the results of the test. But hey, what would I know, maybe I should be going to a backyard chook farmer for such an operation and leave him to his ivory tower but that would be an insult to the expertise of a chook farmer.

        • Rob Long

          BTW, probability is incredibly subjective perhaps a read of this might help: Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics – William Briggs
          Oh my, did I suggest a book to read by a mathematician and an engineer, goodness me.
          I have a friend who is Australia’s leading mathematician in heavy water and consults internationally on nuclear fission. I am glad he knows what he is doing but I certainly don’t understand it. He assures me that probability is 100% subjective too.

          • I have read this book and it is excellent. Probability, because there are things like margins of error, and population size, and confidence level, isn’t something we should be presenting safety professionals as absolutely 100% accurate and reliable. How often are weather forecast wrong. On the other hand, we do need to prioritize risk and make smart decisions. If probability is completely subjective, why do casinos make so much money?

          • Bernard Corden

            Casinos make so much money because gambling is an an income tax for the stupid.

  • What’s the probability of that ever happening on LinkedIn?

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