Robert (Rob) Sams’ recent book, Social Sensemaking – A Reflective Journal; how we make sense of risk, provides new safety and risk thinking when it comes to considering risk in the context of individuals’ behaviors.1 Sams characterizes his personal experience with safety as a learning adventure as opposed to a safety journey.  Adventure depicts the “messiness” of life’s ups and downs and the good times and bad, something that is full of risks, uncertainty, and fun. Journeys are often mapped out and programmed, which is far from our daily safety life.2 Adventure is an apt description for the world of safety, today.

Sams use of the term Social Sensemaking literally means making sense of things in a social context. Since so much of what we do comes from our non-conscious decision making mind, seeking ideas, feelings, and thoughts from others is critical in our discernment of risk. Making sense of others requires us to be aware of our own agendas in order to be open-minded to new ideas and thinking.3

Anti-humanizing approaches

Sams draws upon social psychology and its methods to explore a more humanizing approach to understanding and dealing with risk. Too often we rely on what Sams calls obedience to rule focusing on correcting behavior and implementing more behavioral controls. This obedience to rule (i.e., non-thinking) seduction is typically manifested in such documents as Golden Rules, Company Rules, Cardinal Rules, Life-Saving Rules, etc.  According to Sams, humans are not motivated by these anti-humanizing approaches, rather, we are motivated by “truth, value and control” and autonomy support. Safety professionals have been fixated on answers and solutions (e.g., root cause and cause and effect) and not people.4

Controversial as this may seem, Sams advocates “influencing others to better consider risk for themselves, rather than managing it on their behalf (through the strict application of process for example).” He suggests this can be accomplished by “creating greater space for thinking and reflecting, and resisting the urge to “dumb down” how people think in our organizations and in society.”5

The key to Sams’ approach is to tap into the unconscious mind of workers to better understand how they make decisions regarding risks. Test yourself by wandering around your work site looking for things that might play on your unconscious mind. For example, ask yourself how the words used in signage, the color of walls, the location of work stations and offices impact your unconscious mind.6

Dealing with risk

Sams draws upon Paul Slovic’s research on how we “deal” with risk is affected by how we “feel” about risk in his book The Feeling of Risk.7 Slovic notes that risk and benefit tend to be positively correlated in the world; whereas they are negatively correlated in people’s minds. If people’s feelings toward an activity are favorable, they will judge the risk low and the benefit high and if unfavorable they judge the opposite.8

If we accept risk as subjective from a person’s perspective (i.e., connected to feelings and emotions) and that risk decisions are not made in a rational and logical manner, we may begin to understand and support people in their dealing with and engaging with risk.9 Frankly, turning our attention to why and how individuals process their risk decisions versus being obsessed with removing or controlling objects of risk just might lead to a far greater reduction in injuries coupled with an increase in productivity. Of course, pursuing this line of thinking will prove uncomfortable to many safety professionals because the input data cannot easily be captured on a checklist. Plus, many can only accept that “safety is not about feeling, it’s about right and wrong, that’s what the system dictates.”10

Ask more, tell less

Central to Sams’ theme is Critical Thinking and learning. Safety professionals need to learn and apply the Socratic method of asking questions in the spirit of a shared search for the truth in order to learn why and how employees make risk decisions. We need to stop dumbing down the workplace with more rules and procedures and allow the workforce the freedom to think for themselves, make choices, and be creative as to how they address risk. We need to learn how to listen with people as opposed to people. We need to ask more questions versus always giving answers. Ask more, tell less.

People usually do unsafe things because they are running on autopilot, or distracted, or rushing, or over-confident.11 Look for opportunities to engage your workforce in discussions about why and how they make their decisions about risks.

For too long we have taken the reductionist approach to addressing risk. Reductionism assumes simplistically that once problem parts and symptoms can be identified, then conditions may be cured or fixed.12 Indeed, very sophisticated methods have been developed to control objects and rarely, if ever, focus on the people who are the ones at risk of injury.  At the end of the day, there is no way of telling why or how an individual makes a decision that puts him or herself in harm’s way resulting in their becoming injured.


1  Sams, R. 2016.  Social Sensemaking A Reflective Journal; how we make sense of risk. PowWow Publications. Newcastle NSW, Australia.

2  Ibid. pp. 9.

3  Ibid. pp. 10.

4  Ibid. pp. 12.

5  Ibid. pp. 27.

6  Ibid. pp. 38.

7  Slovic, P. 2010. The Feeling of Risk: New Perspectives on Risk Perception. Earthscan, London, UK.

8  Op. Cit. pp. 45.

9  Ibid. pp. 45-47.

10  Ibid. pp. 60.

11  Ibid. pp. 76.

12  Ibid. pp. 101.