January 2011, Vol. 23, No.1

Safety Corner

Risky business

How risk awareness, risk tolerance, and employer behavior influence operator safety

Shannon Eyler

Rollerblading. Driving a car. Walking alone at night. Smoking. Skydiving. How much risk is acceptable? What may seem risky to one person does not to another, and each person’s answer will vary depending on two factors: risk awareness and risk tolerance. Water and wastewater plant staff members face a wide array of hazards every day. Correctly identifying and evaluating these hazards is crucial to maintaining a high standard of worker safety in the plant. But personal risk awareness and tolerance can have a huge influence over the process of identifying and assessing hazards.


Risk awareness

Risk awareness is simply the awareness that a risk or potential hazard exists. People engage in riskier behavior when they are not aware that a hazard may exist because they do not have a full understanding or appreciation of the consequences.

Simply increasing awareness often changes behavior. For example, as part of the 1998 nationwide tobacco settlement with U.S. states, tobacco companies agreed to fund the “Truth” ad campaign, aimed at discouraging young people from smoking and encouraging those who do to stop. A 2005 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that cigarette smoking among youth fell by nearly 30% from 1999 to 2002, with the Truth campaign and its ability to bluntly explain the hazards and consequences of smoking to its target audience accounting for a substantial portion of the decline.

Common hazards at wastewater treatment plants are for the most part well documented and understood by operators. Some examples include confined spaces; trenches and excavations; electrical work; chemical handling; and slips, trips, and falls. It is important, however, for plant owners and staff to evaluate their facility against these known hazards and for site-specific hazards. This will improve overall risk awareness at the facility. Two valuable techniques that can be used to aid in the hazard assessment process are inspections and job safety analyses (JSAs).

Inspections are a useful tool and generally consist of a walk-through of the affected areas to identify workplace hazards. The physical inspection and observation process sometimes is supplemented with employee interviews and documentation reviews. An inspection checklist often is employed as a tool to guide the inspector in what to look for, and many checklists are already available on the Internet with reference to wastewater treatment plant hazards.

JSAs also can be used to increase knowledge of hazards in the workplace. A JSA is a process in which a particular task is broken down into a series of sequential steps, each of which is examined to identify potential hazards and determine the safest way to do the job. This procedure is also called a job hazard analysis, or JHA.

Whichever technique is used by a facility to assess its specific hazards, it is critical to use a team approach and involve staff members in the process. Frontline operators have the edge in understanding the potentially hazardous situations they encounter on a daily basis and, therefore, also have the edge in helping to identify these hazards.


Risk tolerance

Risk tolerance is the amount of risk a person will assume for any particular activity. How much risk is a person willing to tolerate? The answer to this question depends on many factors.

First, an individual can determine the likelihood and severity of the consequences and then subjectively decide if that level of risk is acceptable. If the consequences are high but the likelihood is low, it may be perceived that the level of risk is acceptable.

For example, a person may acknowledge that the consequence of an airplane crash is catastrophic, but the likelihood of this happening is negligible, so he or she is willing to accept the risk associated with flying. Keep in mind, however, that behavior is determined by perceived, rather than actual, risk. Even if statistics show that the likelihood of a crash is extremely low, a person may perceive the likelihood as much higher and choose to not travel by airplane.

Second,personal factors, such as past experiences, skill level, and physical ability, can influence a person’s decisions on what risk is acceptable. For example, a person swimming in the ocean who is pulled into a vicious rip current may hesitate to venture out into the water again (past experience). Electricians are willing to work around electrical hazards because they have confidence in their ability as a result of their education and experience (skill level). An operator with a history of back injuries may be less likely to volunteer for the task of climbing the 10-m (33-ft) ladder (physical ability). Additionally, as age increases, a person’s willingness to accept risk typically decreases.

Third, the situation influences how much risk a person is willing to accept. Imagine parents who hear that their child has been in an accident and rush to get to the hospital, or the operator whose coworker calls in sick and who now unexpectedly finds himself overwhelmedby the amount of work waiting at the plant. Would the operator be more or less likely to obey the speed limit, don the appropriate personal protective equipment, and follow established safety procedures? A situation can create a heightened sense of urgency or an elevated degree of stress that leads to people taking higher levels of risk than they would under normal circumstances.

Finally,howthe employer approaches safety plays a role in a worker’s decision-making process regarding whether he or she will take a risk.A primary goal of an effective safety program is to create a work environment where safety is integrated into routine operations and management processes to make safety the norm. When employees know that safety systems are in place to protect them, that leadership places a high priority on safety, that they have the resources and support needed to meet defined expectations, and they feel as though they are a part of the process, then safety becomes a part of the company’s culture, and employees will be less tolerant of risk-taking behavior. Conversely, where safety is not instilled as a priority, employees are more likely to engage in unsafe behavior.

Often, two or more of these factors work in combination to influence risk tolerance. Imagine a seasoned wastewater operator who has worked with sodium hypochlorite for years. He is aware of the hazards and has never had a problem. Upon receiving a chemical delivery, it is discovered that the valve on the tank was not properly closed and the chemical is leaking into the containment area. In an effort to save the chemical, the operator rushes into the containment area to close the valve. He sustains chemical burns on his hands and arms, but, as expected, there weren’t any serious repercussions from the employer. In this example, the operator’s past experience, the stressful situation, and the employer’s history of failing to enforce consequences combined to raise the operator’s risk tolerance despite his awareness of the objective dangers.


Strategies to keep risk under control

With so many variables involved, what is the most effective means of reducing at-risk behavior? While there aren’t any easy answers or quick fixes, there are actions that both employers and employees can take to promote safe behavior and discourage risky behavior.

It is critical that operators know hazard recognition techniques so they have the skills necessary to identify situations that may present a risk. It is equally important for employers to communicate known site-specific hazards to employees through training programs. While training can help promote safe work behavior, training alone should not be relied upon to reduce tolerance for workplace risk.

Some factors, such as past experiences, are difficult to exert any control over, because they are entirely personal in nature and therefore vary significantly from one person to another and often are not work-related. There is opportunity, however, to have some indirect influence on other personal factors, such as skill level. Technical training, professional development, and education programs can help improve an individual’s knowledge base, which broadens his or her skill set and increases the person’s confidence in being able to safely and effectively complete a task, thereby reducing the risk involved.

In addition, water and wastewater businesses involve a wide variety of physically demanding tasks that can range from lifting heavy pumps to climbing ladders to landscaping acres of property. Although these tasks may be part of an employee’s job responsibilities, employers can strive to create an environment in which employees feel comfortable acknowledging their physical limitations and where these limitations can be accommodated, when possible. This could take many forms, such as building certain tasks into the scope of work of vendors, providing access to mechanical aids, and fostering an environment in which employees understand that it is better to ask for a co-worker’s help than to risk injury. As the work force continues to age, this is of particular importance.

Although it may be impossible to control whether a particular situation occurs, employers should set the expectation for how employees should react to certain situations. Where a situation is contributing to an employee taking shortcuts or hurrying, managers should play a key role in addressing this behavior by promoting safety as the first priority on a regular basis. Employees should understand that safe behavior is an expectation and there won’t be negative consequences for taking safety into consideration, and similarly, that there will be negative consequences for failing to follow established safe work practices.

The most significant opportunity for an employer or manager to influence risk tolerance is through strong management and enforcement of the safety program. How this works for each facility will differ based on the needs and resources available, but there are five basic ideas that everyone can use to create a compelling program.

Foster a team approach. An effective/successful safety program requires operators and managers working in partnership with one another. While leadership’s role is critical, everyone must be connected to and have personal investment in creating a safe and healthy work environment. When people are engaged in the implementation of the safety program, everyone feels more responsible for his or her own safety and the safety of co-workers.

Empower employees. Create opportunities for plant staff to contribute safety ideas, concerns, and suggestions. It is critical that suggestions and ideas are reviewed and are either implemented or the reason for not implementing them is explained. Ignoring suggestions can set the tone that contributions are not valued and can be more detrimental to the safety program than not soliciting ideas at all.

Use positive reinforcement. “Catch” people doing things safely and reinforce those safe behaviors with positive feedback.

Make safety personal. Help everyone answer the question, “What does it mean to me?” Share real-life safety scenarios and use personal examples, not abstract ones.

Promote accountability. Assign responsibilities at all levels, and be prepared to hold individuals accountable and enforce safety policies. To allow individuals to ignore safety policies with no consequence is essentially the same as not having safety policies at all.

Everyone has a different level of risk awareness and risk tolerance based on technical training, past experience, and other factors. Operators face numerous hazards with varying levels of associated risk in water and wastewater treatment plants every day. Recognizing them as risks, accurately assessing the level of risk, and taking appropriate precautions are the critical steps to maintaining a high level of safety in the plant. Using safety inspections, JSAs, training and education, and a strong employee-centered safety program can help keep risk under control.


Shannon Eyler is a vice president of Woodard & Curran (Portland, Maine) and is responsible for overseeing health and safety program development, management, and training at nearly 40 contract-operated treatment plants.

Online health and safety inspection checklists

There are many online health and safety resources for plant owners and operators. The following are links to inspection checklists that will help staff identify hazards in their facility:


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