Toolbox Talks: Safe behaviors and risk compensation


In skydiving, there is a tenet called Booth’s rule #2: “The safer skydiving gear becomes, the more chances skydivers will take, in order to keep the fatality rate constant.”

It’s a little tongue-in-cheek but it best describes the idea of risk compensation. If people feel more in danger, they will be more cautious. If they feel more protected, they will take greater risks. It’s not a conscious decision. Skydivers aren’t activity taking steps to keep the fatality rate constant. It’s just a natural tendency to feel less in danger the more we feel “protected” by PPE or other safety measures.

This isn’t just a skydiving phenomenon. There are numerous studies where “safety measures” have been found to contribute to risky behaviors. When Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS) first became available, several studies found that drivers in cars with ABS systems would drive faster, follow closer, and delay braking than when in cars without ABS, virtually erasing the benefit of having an ABS in the car. Drivers NOT in the habit of wearing seatbelts are found to drive faster and less carefully when they DO wear a seatbelt. Skiers and bicyclists are found to engage in riskier behaviors when wearing a helmet.

In other words, you might think your safety equipment or PPE has it covered, and you are off the hook for being more careful.

Very soon we will be putting the idea of risk compensation to the test.

As we start to ease (hopefully) our way back to work and public spaces, we will keep many of the same protective measures in place. Many people will still wear gloves or masks. Businesses will keep the marks on the floor to keep shoppers six feet apart. Plexiglass barriers will remain between cashiers and customers. Hopefully, these measures will not result in people thinking they are off the hook and can be less careful.

Every flu season, we get the same coaching about our behavior. Cover your coughs and sneezes, wash your hands frequently, and stay at home if you are sick. These are the behaviors that should have been a habit BEFORE Covid-19 and certainly should continue moving forward. But how many people will succumb to risk compensation and think their homemade mask has them covered … in that figurative sense? Your mask may make you feel secure and protected to the point where you neglect the safe behaviors.

Just as ABS in cars shouldn’t make you comfortable with speeding, following too closely, or delaying braking, masks and gloves shouldn’t make you comfortable with not washing your hands, going out when sick, or not covering your coughs and sneezes.

Don’t negate the benefits of PPE by engaging in risky behavior.

Toolbox Talks offers quick insights and thoughts to use for your toolbox (tailboard) talks. Dave Sowers is a founding member of Knowledge Vine, a veteran-owned human performance training and consulting organization that strives to reduce the frequency and severity of human errors in the workplace. He has almost 30 years of experience in power generation and the utility industry. He is a veteran of U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Program and holds a bachelor’s degree in resources management and a master’s degree in both management and emergency management and homeland security.