What are the 4Ds in Safety Risk Management?

4 Ds Blog Safety Worker Photo Cority

Ever since I stumbled across Sidney Dekker’s short film ‘Safety Differently’ a few years back, I’ve been enthralled with ‘Safety II’. Safety II, often considered the ‘new view’, is an alternative approach to traditional safety management practice. This approach is grounded in human and organizational performance theory. 

Traditional safety risk management is a rule-based operating philosophy based on several assumptions. Firstly, it holds that processes and systems of work are linear and well-designed. Secondly, safe performance occurs when workers rigidly adhere to these well-designed processes. And lastly, errors are the exception, often the result of poor behavior. Which can be eradicated by the use of constraints, including rules, worker training, and strict supervision. 

Human and organizational performance, or HOP, on the other hand, is a risk-based operating philosophy that’s founded on the idea that human error is not an aberration but in fact normal, and in some cases, even expected. People make mistakes – we all know this. But unlike traditional safety models, HOP encourages organizations to recognize that:

  1. Work is dynamic,
  2. Error is normal, and
  3. Workplace harm prevention requires processes and systems that can actively adapt to and recover safely from errors

In fact, HOP argues that it’s only by leveraging the collective ideas, experiences, and adaptive behavior of workers that organizations can design better systems of work. Systems that accommodate errors without compromising worker well-being. 

But how can we incorporate these ideas from HOP into how our organization plans?

In the blog, we’ll look at the following: 

  1. What are the 4Ds for HOP? 
  2. What are some examples of each? 
  3. How does data play a role in the 4Ds? 

What are the 4Ds for HOP? 

For most companies, designing better systems of work starts with Risk Assessment, which includes:

  • Breaking down a task into its basic components
  • Identifying the potential for harm at each stage in the process
  • Introducing measures to reduce those risks to a more tolerable level

And a new trend called the 4Ds is adding another tool to our risk assessment arsenal.  

The approach, coined by HOP expert Jeffrey Lyth, argues that by asking four simple questions, workers can effectively identify where system design may introduce human error that can adversely affect well-being, and help organizations make necessary work design changes to reduce the risk of harm. But what are those 4 questions, and how do we use them? 

What’s Dangerous? 

The first D is likely the one we are most familiar with. Every risk assessment encourages workers to review their intended task and ask themselves, “what things related to this task might harm me?’ Once identified, the individuals involved work collaboratively to implement measures to reduce the risks to a tolerable level.  

But we’ve come to understand that risk management is heavily influenced by individual risk perception and tolerance. Risk perception is how we identify and perceive risk and risk tolerance is how much risk we are willing to accept. Both of which are often dictated by our education, experiences, and cultural influences. Therefore, we cannot assume that we all perceive risk the same way. Only by actively discussing what workers perceive as ‘risky’, and how that risk should be managed, can we overcome individual bias and mitigate danger. Asking “what’s dangerous about this task” facilitates a conversation to level-set what’s acceptable risk, what isn’t, and what needs to be done about it. 

What’s Different? 

Most organizations have standard operating procedures to guide how they believe work must be completed. If only workers follow the procedure, they will be kept safe. When procedures aren’t followed, that’s when bad stuff happens. 

But procedures are often written based on an idealized version of how we expected the work to be performed, sometimes referred to as ‘work as imagined’. But work never happens exactly the way we intend it to. Conditions change. People are added or removed at the last minute. Timelines are pushed up. Required tools aren’t always available. And workers are required to constantly adapt to this natural variability – between how the work was originally planned and how they know it must (now) be completed. 

Encouraging workers to ask ‘what’s different’ allows for an open conversation as to how our original plan might need to change to account for things we hadn’t intended and ensures that workers do not feign that they will follow the procedure without question, even when they know the procedure no longer applies to the work they are tasked to complete. 

What’s Difficult? 

Have you ever tried to assemble IKEA furniture? It can test the patience of a monk.  

A few months ago, I was putting together a bookcase. Following the instructions, I attempted to join two pieces together. Yet, try as I might, they just wouldn’t fit. Growing increasingly frustrated, I started pounding on one piece with my fist, only to damage the bookcase, and injure my hand in the process. After cursing out IKEA, I suddenly realized that I had read the instructions incorrectly and was forcing two incorrect pieces together. Had I stopped and asked myself; ‘why is this so difficult’, I may have been able to recognize my error in advance. 

As Lyth explains, when we are confronted by an overly difficult task, it can encourage us to pause and ask questions. We can then collect additional information that may better inform our view of risk. Building a culture where workers can openly express difficulties will help short-circuit natural tendencies to keep challenges to themselves. Creating an environment where workers aren’t afraid to admit they don’t know or cannot do something may be just enough to ensure an open exchange of ideas that will help reduce harm-inducing error. 

What’s Dumb? 

“That’s dumb.” We’ve likely all said this at some point when completing a task. The statement usually arises when we encounter a constraint or requirement that doesn’t make sense in the context of what we are doing, or what we need to achieve. But asking what’s dumb can help us recognize when our understanding of what needs to happen may not align with what we’re being asked to do. 

By asking what’s dumb, we are not judging the intelligence of the individuals involved in planning a task or writing the procedure. Instead, we’re encouraging workers to freely describe when something doesn’t make sense to them. Workers may see task elements as unhelpful, redundant, overly obstructive or simply unreasonable. In any case, having workers express their concerns and explore the intent behind the issue is the first step toward team alignment, and helps prevent workers from pushing forward with work-arounds or shortcuts that may introduce additional risk to the task. 

The Importance of Data in the Safety Risk Management

Used appropriately, the 4Ds provide a simple, practical approach to guide effective safety risk management. It ensures that workers openly engage with each other and address potential errors before they lead to negative outcomes. 

But while the model is helpful, there is, in my opinion, a key piece missing: Data 

Evaluating risk effectively requires that workers have access to data about their tasks, processes, environment, and even co-workers. Unfortunately, for many businesses, that data isn’t immediately available. Rather, that data is locked up or in multiple, disparate systems that aren’t readily accessible to front line workers. 

Using EHS Software for Safety Risk Management

So, it’s important to be mindful of ways in which we can get information to workers to support real-time decision-making. Adoption of mobile-first SaaS software platforms provide front-line workers with immediate access to information – from training records to chemical inventory data to operating procedures – data that’s instrumental in guiding an effective task-based risk assessment and detecting and mitigating errors before they contribute to measurable loss. 

By sharing the outcomes of risk assessments through software, companies can facilitate broader organizational learning. This helps to reduce overall enterprise risk, especially when best practices can be easily shared and adopted at multiple locations.   

EHS software also provides the architecture needed to facilitate a standardized approach to risk assessment across the business. Using configurable digital checklists, organizations can design and implement a common safety risk management approach. This will enable users to document findings against these components directly in the platform. Integrated business intelligence tools help organizational leaders analyze completed risk assessments and identify recurring 4D themes. This helps them refine safe systems of work and/or identify where additional resources must be prioritized.

Final Thoughts 

Whether you’re a supporter of the old or new view of safety, or some hybrid of the two, it’s clear that understanding how, when, and why work goes awry is a critical element of designing safer systems of work.   

And while new tools like 4D will always come to the fore, it’s important that organizational leaders consider how they are providing the best information possible to their people at the front-line so they can design and execute work in the safest and most efficient way possible.