The Uncertainty Factor in Risk Management

November 23, 2011

Kneejerk Reactions Do More Harm Than Good

Matthew D. Griffith, M.S., RCRSP
Georgia Institute of Technology

Hearing the words “high dive” evokes strong memories and great stories from many adults. It was almost a right-of-passage at the local pool. Unfortunately, there are not many 3-meter diving boards left in North America, and today’s kids will not have that terrorizing, yet exhilarating experience of their first jump from ten feet. The removal of diving boards is indicative of a spreading and disturbing phenomenon in risk management, the unsubstantiated elimination of programs and activities resulting from kneejerk reactions and poor analysis.

To be an effective risk manager, it is necessary to have an appropriate working definition of risk. The problem is that there is no agreed upon definition of risk, in fact, a quick internet search produced at least 25 different definitions. While realizing that risk does indeed have different meanings in different applications and industries, a good general definition for use in recreational risk management is the probability of a hazard to lead to a loss. It is critical to understand that “risk” is the probability, which can be measured and quantified.

In addition to understanding the definition of risk, a thorough understanding of the difference between risk and uncertainty is important to a risk manager’s success. Uncertainty is not the same as risk, it is inherently immeasurable. With risk, the odds are known, or at the least, there is information and data that can be used to quantify it. This is the case with the lottery, although someone who buys a Mega Millions ticket may not know the odds of winning, it can be calculated using available information. With uncertainty though, the odds, by definition, cannot be known. Differentiating between risk and uncertainty underscores the many challenging decisions a risk manager must make.

With a good working definition of risk and uncertainty, a risk manager can begin to effectively evaluate risk and ultimately challenge some common risk management myths. Prior to evaluating risk, the well-known risk management process in recreation and sport included first identifying hazards. Once identified, all hazards must be evaluated based on objective criteria, namely severity (in terms of magnitude of dollars) and frequency. This will produce the calculated “risk” for any particular hazard, program, or activity. Then, at least one financial and one operational control approach is implemented to manage the risk. The financial control approaches to risk are retention and transference (e.g. through purchasing general liability insurance) and the operational control approaches are reduction, prevention, and elimination/avoidance.

There is a problem with this process though – it does not have a way to deal with uncertainty. So when something new is introduced (program, product, etc), there is no data or way of knowing whether it presents the agency with any measureable amount of risk. The unfortunate tendency of many well-meaning administrators in this situation is to err on the side of caution. This is problematic for a variety of reasons and one recent example will demonstrate this common mistake. When five-toe shoes were first introduced a few years ago, there was no data regarding their safety for fitness activities. Almost instinctively, gyms and recreation centers started prohibiting them in the name of “safety.” The truth is that they are just as safe as any other athletic shoe. A review of lawsuits from 2006 through 2010 could not find any case which linked an injury to the use of toe shoes. In addition, some scientific studies have shown the shoes to have some benefits for the human body (Squadrone & Gallozzi, 2009). Much more research is needed to substantiate the wide variety of claims the manufacturers make, but nonetheless, banning the shoes inadvertently eliminates any potential or actual benefits of wearing them. This automatic, kneejerk reaction to something new clearly shows the disturbing phenomenon that is all too common in the field.

Another part of the phenomenon is that the risk management process gets misused and abused. A look at the removal of diving boards from community pools will show how this happens. First, the safety record of springboard diving must be emphasized; no catastrophic diving accidents have been reported at any NCAA or USA Diving sanctioned pools (in both competitive and recreational diving). The problem with diving boards is two-fold: (1) when they are improperly installed into an unsafe diving envelope, and (2) when people fall from the ladder or board and land on the pool deck. An overwhelming majority of pool-related spinal cord injuries occur in private residential pools, and in fact only eight percent of injuries occur in public pools (Devivo & Sekar, 1997). Of the spinal cord injuries that occurred in public pools, 95% were in less than five feet of water (where there were no diving boards) (Devivo & Sekar, 1997). Essentially all the injuries related to diving boards at public pools happen while the diver is climbing the ladder and falls, or falls between the rails and lands on the pool deck. Diving from springboards themselves into a safe diving envelope is an extremely safe activity. The hazard is not the diving board, but rather falling to the deck. Proper risk management application in this case would dictate preventing falls by re-engineering the diving board stands with stairs instead of ladders, and better railing systems. Alas, history shows this is not what happened. Insurance companies and “professional” risk managers dictated the removal of diving boards from public pools completely. This is another example of a kneejerk reaction in the name of risk management. It also shows a blatant misuse of the risk management process because the actual hazard was generalized and not properly evaluated using data.

The use of elimination/avoidance as a control approach based on subjective opinions and kneejerk reactions is unacceptable. By eliminating activities, any associated benefits are also inadvertently eliminated. For this reason, elimination is always the least preferred risk control approach in recreation. The risk should be reduced to a tolerable level by first using the other available risk control approaches. It is reasonable to say that some programs and activities are too risky to allow, such as the use of trampolines in schools, but risk management must never be used as a “cop-out” to avoid offering an activity. A prudent risk manager must make data-based decisions from thorough risk analysis and accept uncertainty for what it is. The broad application of risk management dogma without supporting data is a dangerous scenario. It’s disappointing that there is more wisdom embedded in making the average sports bet than there is in the typical risk management decision.

Devivo, M. J. & Sekar, P. (1997). Prevention of spinal cord injuries that occur in swimming pools. Spinal Cord, 35, 509-515.

Squadrone, R. & Gallozzi, C. (2009). Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in experienced barefoot runners. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 49(1), 6-13.

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