MANAGING SAFETY PERFORMANCE NEWS

Natural Hazards

“Err on the side of caution.” 
 
     ~Anonymous
 

You might have noticed a good sized chunk of the States suffered a serious case of winter these last few weeks. Perhaps you were one of those afflicted; I certainly was. Perhaps you weren’t: if you live in a place like Southern California, South Florida or, for that matter, in the rest of the world, you might not have even noticed, much less cared. 

That I understand perfectly. After all, all weather is local.

But no matter where you live you are not immune to a set of natural hazards. They’re just different, depending on where you live. Southern California has earthquakes and wildfires. South Florida has hurricanes and sink holes. There are landslides in the Puget Sound; volcanos on the Big Island, Hawaii; tornados in the mid-West. And that’s just the US. 

Natural hazards are an inescapable part of living on a live planet; yes they are bad, but the alternative would be far worse.

As hazards go, at least the natural ones are well known and understood, and in some cases even predictable. Back in the spring of 1980, residents near Mount St. Helens were warned to get out of harm’s way. Most did; a few didn’t. RIP Harry R. Truman, May 18, 1980. 

When you know summer heat is coming to Arizona or winter cold to Siberia, you prepare for the hazard, like insulating against the heat and cold, or removing yourself entirely. It’s what rational people do.

On the other hand, when you’re sure the hazard won’t be coming your way, preparation is a waste of two things in short supply: time and money. No rational person living on the Big Island would invest in a snow shovel, other than as a gag gift for the new neighbor who just moved in from Buffalo, thinking they’d leave their’s behind.

All that makes perfect sense, until something unpredictable happens. Like winter weather in Texas as severe as North Dakota. Then all heck breaks loose; everybody points fingers at what should have been done, but wasn’t.

All of which is totally predictable.

With natural hazards, the unexpected can happen. Just like it can for those man-made hazards you’ve got on your job.

About Hazards

If nothing else, situations involving natural hazards prove instructive to understanding the process of managing the hazards found where you work. So, let’s do this.

Starting with the basics: a hazard is a source of danger: something that can hurt you. Nature creates a formidable array of them: earthquake, hurricane, tornado, landslide, flood, volcanic eruption, tsunami. As to why nature is so good at this, it’s because the planet has a plentiful supply of the two basic ingredients necessary to create a hazard: objects – land, water, air – and energy. This is a live planet we are living on.

As far as hazard training goes, by the time we’re adults we know all about these hazards. There’s a documented history of the worst to learn from, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. We may have even experienced one or two, up close and personal. I can check off hurricane, earthquake and landslide. I’ve been to Mount St. Helens. Just not on May 18, 1980.

If you want to rate those hazards by the combination of the degree of harm they are capable of producing and the number of people that can be harmed – which is not a bad way to think about hazards – these are among the biggest found on the planet. 

Getting down to practical matters, of the list of natural hazards, which ones do you pay close attention to and manage carefully? Your answer: the ones you think will most likely harm you. 

As to what they are, it depends on where you live. Say, for example, you live in Missouri: you prepare for tornadoes in the spring and cold weather in the winter. There’s no need to pay attention to volcanos, tsunamis or earthquakes.  

That’ll never happen, right?

Therein lies the problem: how sure are you that those hazards will never strike where you live? At least not in your lifetime, which is the rational basis on which to make such a calculation. Are you absolutely sure – or, pretty sure? 

Big difference there. That difference can be summed up in a word: risk.

Concerning Risk

Of the leadership and management principles we teach and write about, I put the four letter word risk on the short list of Most Misunderstood. In case you’re interested – you should be – the others are accountability and control. Even the experts are confounded by risk. They have produced grossly erroneous estimates of risk, and wrongly lectured about risk mitigation. 

I’ve been on a two decade crusade to set the record straight on the matter, because this misunderstanding can – and has – proven fatal. You cannot effectively manage what you do not understand. Not that it stops people from trying, and that explains much of their failings.

Risk doesn’t have to be this difficult. If a hazard is a source of danger, it follows that a risk is the probability that it does. 

It’s that simple! Making risk more complicated than that serves no good purpose. So, don’t.

Then there is the matter of severity: the degree of harm and the number harmed. We think we can predict effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, and the other natural hazards. But in reality, severity is highly dependent on where the hazard strikes. Is a big earthquake in a remote part of Alaska worse than a small hurricane in New Orleans? 

The answer depends on whether the levees hold. 

Hazard/Risk/Severity

When it comes to natural hazards, everybody knows what to fear. As to their risk – the likelihood of a given hazard showing up on our doorstep – we have a sense of probability, factored by science, history, experience and maybe a bit of gut feel. 

We think we’re good at calculating risk. We may be, but then we get surprised, and we find out otherwise. Take it from someone who lives here, a month ago precious few of us in Texas considered the possibility of the coldest winter weather in centuries showing up here. 

That’ll never happen……until it does. In my case, in late February, just when the trees started to bud out for Spring!

Lest you think getting risk wrong is only a problem for those of us living deep in the heart of Texas, let’s circle back to consider the example of someone living in Missouri. It is the Show Me state. 

When deciding what hazards to take most seriously, someone living in New Madrid will make up their list based on potential severity and probability. As well they should. Logically, they’ll build a tornado shelter – this is part of Tornado Alley – and make sure the house is properly weatherized for the winter. 

On the other hand, they won’t give a moment’s thought to installing a tsunami alarm or earthquake proofing the overpasses on Interstate 55. 

Maybe they should. 

You do know what happened in New Madrid, back in 1811? An earthquake in the range of 8.0! Among the side effects of this massive ground shake were landslides and a tsunami on the Mississippi River. Now the experts say there’s roughly a 10% chance – aka, risk – of a repeat event in the next fifty years.

In the case of our winter storm here in Texas, it’s hard to imagine that the damage from a cold snap was worse than a hurricane, but it was. If we’d prepared the way we prepare for a hurricane – or someone in Buffalo prepares for winter – it wouldn’t have been that way. It was cold, but not that cold. 

But by and large we didn’t, because we were sure that natural hazard wouldn’t show up here.

Back On Your Job

Points made, it’s time to connect up the dots and apply this analysis to helping you manage safety performance better. That is always the point of it.  

First, for natural hazards, there’s a list of known hazards. For those, it’s a short list. For the hazards found out on your job, it’s a long list. But in both cases, it’s a known list. Rarely is a new, never before known hazard discovered.

For hazards – natural and workplace – the root of the challenge lies with probability, aka, risk. If we knew for sure the hazard was going to show up, we’d take necessary precautions to prepare and protect. But for many hazards, we don’t know for sure. So, we estimate, predict, guess, assume, ignore. If we’d consistently err on the side of caution, we’d be better off. But we seldom do, leaving us surprised and unprepared.

Surprised and unprepared, the harm caused by the hazard is worse, often worse than predicted.

Finally, there is one big difference worth noting between natural hazards and the ones found on your job: you can’t control nature, but you do have a measure of control over most of the hazards found on your job.

Bottom line: Making it a practice to consider the worst thing that could happen and to consistently err on the side of caution isn’t the easiest thing to do. Doing that probably won’t win you many admirers. But those practices can serve to reduce the damage the hazard causes, and in the case of job hazards, could reduce the probability of the hazard striking.

Aka, hazard mitigation and risk reduction. 

Paul Balmert
February 2021

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