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Risky decision making at work (How to deal with uncertain situations at work?)

The whole of the decisive situations may be classified into three groups: 1) certain situations, 2) uncertain (risky) situations and 3) uncertain (indeterminate) situations. In the certain situation both the result and state of the world are known. Selecting a car can be an example of such situation. If a man makes a choice or buys a car, it will, apart from the level of the post sale satisfaction, become his property. A choice is made here on the basis of the attractiveness of the available opportunities, considering values and being sure about the selected option. That choice may be better or worse. Yet the decision depends exclusively on the purchaser.

But what happens in the situation, when there is no certainty as for the gained result? An example of such a situation in the professional environment can be entrusting the subordinate person a new difficult task, using the advanced technology, but also no adjustment of a person’s abilities to the physically and mentally burdening working conditions can be a reason for an injury. We may try to estimate the possible profits and losses as well as the probability of achieving a given result, however, we cannot have a complete certainty that everything will go the way it was previously assumed (subjective expectations). For example, if we want to launch a new medical tool in the market (equivalent of an X-ray apparatus), we can take this situation as risky – we know the statistics of a negative impact of the X-ray apparatus on health of persons operating the device or we may assume that both tools differ from each other so much that we are unable to assess the probability of the negative consequences of the new apparatus operation – then we talk about uncertain situations. According to Savage[1], the uncertain situations happen in our life much more often than risky ones. In fact, in Savage’s point of view, there is no difference between the uncertain and risky situation, because although the probabilities are not always known, people have subjective opinion on their subject. They estimate, are guided by feelings or rely on their previous experiences (according to Savage these are the individual beliefs). Intuitive beliefs about the probability of the occurrence of a certain event are almost always preceded by human preferences.

The occupational risk, according to the Ministry of Labour, is understood as: ‘the probability of occurrence of undesired events (threats) related to the performed work, which may cause loss, as well as their effects on employees’ health or life such as occupational diseases and accidents at work’. The term ‘occupational risk’ was defined in the EU directive of 12 June 1989 on the introduction of measures in order to increase the safety and improve health of employees at work[2].

Why should the employer assess the occupational risk of his employees? First and foremost, the employer is obliged to it because of a number of legislative regulations, but also commonsense reasons – by providing their employees with physical comfort and security, increases thereby the productivity of their employees.

In accordance with the Labour Code, employer ‘is obliged to take safety measures, if they run a business activity, which creates a possibility of occurrence of sudden risk to employees’ health or safety as well as (...) inform employees about the occupational risk which relates to the performed work as well as the principles of the protection against risks’[3]. According to the above, the employer is obliged to:

a) inform employees about the occupational risk (in relation to the performed work and about principles of the protection against risk);

b) apply safety measures to prevent occupational diseases and other illnesses (in relation to  the performed work)[4].

According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy[5] regulation, employer is obliged ‘to assess and document the occupational risk possible within specific works and apply essential preventive measures decreasing the risk’, in particular, to:

a) provide organization of work and workstations in order to protect against accidental risk as well as effects of harmful health factors and inconveniences (considering psychophysical aspects);

b) eliminate risk to employees’ health or safety (applying technologies, devices, materials and substances which do not pose risk).

Every employer should be able to assess the occupational risk to their subordinates. Every few minutes an accident related to the performed work takes place in the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of people suffer injuries in the place of work every year. Therefore, the evaluation of the occupational risk is an indispensable and compulsory tool for every employer or manager. The evaluation of the occupational risk means: ‘comparing the level of risk which was specified as a result of assessment with the level regarded as acceptable’. This assessment is included in the PN-N 18002 standard as a procedure of the occupational risk the assessment which provides for preventive measures as:

a) collecting essential information to assess the correcting ones;

b) identification of threats;

c) estimation of the occupational risk;

d) specification of the acceptability;

 e) establishing essential actions.

Based on the above standard, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work worked out a five-stage approach towards risk assessment[6].

Stage 1. Determining threats and indicating the endangered people. Identification of threats in the place of work includes both full exploration of a place of work as well as potential persons which can suffer an injury. An important element at this stage is determining possible risk to health of specific persons, i.e. kind of injury or occupational disease. That specification should allow for the issue of gender and the group of employees which can be exposed to a higher risk or have particular needs (e.g. persons with limited physical ability). Verification of the adjustment of working conditions to the employee’s abilities is a crucial issue at this stage as well.

Stage 2. The assessment of types of risk and ranking according to the importance. The risk resulting from any kind of threat is assessed at this stage. That analysis is carried out on the basis of:

a) probability that a given threat causes specific effects;

b) degree of the possible results;

c) frequency of exposure and number of groups of exposed employees.

Stage 3. Deciding on precautionary measures. At this stage one should consider:

a) elimination of the risk, if possible;

b) if not – controlling the risk in order to decrease its  effect on life or health.

Stage 4. Taking action. The identification of threats in the place of work make it possible to execute the next stage that is an implementation of precautionary measures and protection measures. The element of an effective execution of such undertakings is working out a plan which includes:

a) means which should be implemented;

b) range of responsibilities and execution dates;

c) planned deadline.

The actions in favour of elimination (minimization) of threats at the place of work should be treated as a priority.

Stage 5. Monitoring and inspection. Monitoring of the results of the previous stages aims at assuring that the precautionary measures have been implemented and their results effective. An identification of other problems, which should be assessed considering risk, is also possible at this stage.

The risk assessment is not a single action. All activities which may expose employees to any danger should be assessed. If somebody asked, whether it is worth investing in this type of undertaking, I would answer: every year hundreds of thousands of people suffer injuries in the place of work, the consequence of which are sick leaves aimed at treatment, dealing with stress resulting from the work overload. The properly carried out risk assessment can raise the safety and health protection level in the place of work and improve the performance of a company. Is it worth it?


Iwona Pilichowska


[1] Savage, L.J., The Foundations of Statistics. New York: Wiley 1954.

[2] Council Directive 89/391/EEC of 12 June 1989 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work called a framework directive.

[3] The Labour Code, art. 224 and 226.

[4] The Labour Code, art. 226 and 227.

[5] Regulation of the Minister of Labour and Social Policy of 26 September 1997 on the general health and safety at work regulations, Journal of Laws No. 129 item 844 with later amendments, § 39.

[6] www.hw.osha.europa.eu, [20.08.2011].