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Chaos and Worker Safety

Eric Schmitz /
  • Categories: EHS

Managers are accustomed to making data driven decisions for worker safety. They use the best information available, set company policies, and workers are responsible for following the rules. And in the past, that was enough.

Today, managers must apply regulatory interpretations and create safe work environments that reduce risks from a multitude of hazards, from the traditional; hazardous compounds, and physical dangers, to more complex hazards, such as establishing contingency plans, dealing with regulatory inspections, creating injury and illness prevention plans, building safety cultures, and mitigating workplace violence.

Worker safety is no longer a closed-loop system. It is now part of an ever-expanding, dynamic and open system. As a result, efforts to foster a safe and productive worksite can be embraced or destroyed by internal or external pressures, and outcomes can be wholly unpredictable.

We may not want to admit it, but there are many aspects of modern worker safety that we simply can’t control. For this reason, many dealerships are using risk management strategies that seem more like attempts to control chaos than anything close to a traditional management strategy.

Which raises a valid question: Is there anything we can learn from chaos theory?

Chaos theory is the mathematical study of systems that are apparently disordered. But what chaos theory is really about is finding the underlying order in seemingly random occurrences.

As it turns out, a key principle of chaos theory is that outcomes of any dynamic system are highly dependent on initial conditions. In fact, despite their chaotic nature, dynamic systems may be completely dependent on initial conditions of the system.

It seems to me that if we use chaos theory as a guide, then there is hope for the decision-maker, after all. By controlling “initial conditions” of the work environment, and using an appropriate risk management strategy, we can still control our own destinies and our worker’s safety. In fact, this is what risk management is all about.

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