In Star Wars, Han Solo and other major characters express their gut feeling about various situations. In traditional risk management parlance, that “gut feeling” would equate to subjectivity, an element of decision-making that needs to be minimised in risk management if not eliminated. This has been sought through various statistical analysis tools, risk nomograms and rational approaches to risk. But all decision-making has an element of the emotional, the subjective, the gut-feeling. This position was emphasised recently in a presentation in an OHS conference by Dr David Brooks who described risk management as an art as well as a science.
Such a description may lead to the implication that risk management can legitimately be open to as large a range of interpretations as many visual arts can be, leading to risk management anarchy. What Brooks was acknowledging was the subjectivity in decision-making for which, sometimes, there is no rational basis, or at least no rational basis in the often short time allotted for a decision to be made. Sometimes risk management comes down to a “best guess”.
We should not get hung up on the “guess” part but we should be working to ensuring that the “best” is really as good as can be, given the circumstances in which the “best guess” will be voiced. To achieve this goal, safety and risk professionals must have a broad understanding, or at least an awareness, of issues that could affect a decision. In occupational health and safety (OHS), this needs to include how a rule or a policy is likely to be applied, where that rule or law has originated, and the baggage, ideology or politics contained within that rule.
Does this counter the move to establish “evidence-based decision-making“? No. The decision-making process has not changed but the knowledge base from which that decision is drawn has. There is less need to rely on gut-feeling in the 21st century as there was in the past as the pool of information easily available to professionals is greater now than ever before, but there has been a corresponding rise in unreliability of that data.
OHS and risk professionals need to develop super sensitive filters as well as a broad knowledge base to even approach an attempt at the “best guess”. In some high-risk industries, such guesses have to be very, very good. In lower-risk industries and occupations, the consequences of a poor decision may be considerably less catastrophic but there is just as much expectation that no decision should be “poor”, that every guess is a best guess.
Specialist OHS and risk professionals need to be particularly aware that too much speciality could limit the effectiveness of their skills in the broader OHS market.