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  5. Understanding Causal Factors


Understanding causal factors is an important part of being a safety manager and will add depth to your own decision-making. These factors are some of the most common, and documented, social and psychological factors that may affect an individuals evaluation of risks present leading to wrongly accepting increased levels of risk. Understanding these common causal factors also assists pragmatic and effective incident review that may point to deficiencies in policies, procedures or staff competencies. These factors rarely occur in isolation and you can see how two or more may have influence in any given situation.

1. Too familiar with the situation

Familiarity and mis-lined attribution is one of the most common psychological factor break-downs in thousands of reviewed incidents. ‘It can’t happen to me’ is one of the worst things you could hear from your staff or expedition team-mates. It shows true ignorance of the fact that you are rolling the dice on many situations the moment you step outside. A solution could be assuming the paradigm of ‘this could/will happen to me – I need to see it coming’. This 100% constant vigilance is critical if you want to be a professional, and last long in the industry. Don’t drop your guard.

2. Risk Shift

A common social aspect of risk taking is that a group will make riskier decisions than the individuals that comprise that group. One explanation for risk shift is that risk taking is a socially valued behaviour. Taking risks indicates courage and forcefulness and is generally more highly valued than conservatism. Most people tend to respect and admire others who are willing to take risks. Working in an expedition ‘team’ reinforces social desirability and can therefore influence individuals to move towards the more desirable – risky behaviour. The problem then is that group behaviours and norms are assumed to be borne by the group, not the individual – thus shifting (falsely) the responsibility to the group rather than the individual.

Risk Shift is manifested almost daily in polar tourism with zodiac driving and proximity to the most ‘unknown’ of elements we deal with – ice bergs.

3. Get home-itis

Get home-itis results from trying to adhere to a schedule or simply forgetting everything else once the end is in sight. This phenomenon affects the level of risk an individual or group is prepared to take at the end of an excursion, hike or activity. It is the social and psychological pressure to get home on time. Getting back is perceived as so important that additional risks and hazards diminish compared to the importance of the goal.

Consider the expedition team member/s out on a hike. They have a last zodiac time but weather is deteriorating, some of the group are tired and clumsy in the last big rocks on the descent. Sensibility and situational awareness [future article] says to slow down and deal with this place as a separate entity – get home-itis pushes you on with stacked cards against you.

4. Risk homeostasis (have sat-phone, GPS and way points – will travel)

Risk homeostasis theory suggests that people adjust the amount of risk they are prepared to take upwards if a new safety device or control is present. Without consideration of the deeper training and education – just giving a staff member a sat phone and GPS and set of IAATO waypoints might make someone ‘feel’ more comfortable but does not necessarily make them safer.

5. Wild cards

Wild cards are unpredictable, irresponsible behaviours that threaten safety by taking you by surprise and putting you in a reactive mode often without all the information. With training and experience of course you can respond from a crisis or safety management perspective but some wild cards can still defy management. They are not, however, an excuse for ignorance or a fall back excuse for everything that goes wrong.

Safety or risk management depends upon the ability to be safe (training/education), the opportunity to be safe (technology), and most importantly the desire to be safe (motivation). Our job as Polar Tourism Guides is to make sure we have the knowledge, tools and support to be the best we can.