Risk vs Reward on a personal level

As an international airline pilot, I am often asked, “Is aviation dangerous?”  My answer is unequivocally “YES!”  Aviation today is just as dangerous as it was when the Wright Brothers first flew.  The only difference is, back then you crashed going slower than you would in today’s modern jets.

There are many professions that lull us into thinking they are “safe”, but they are in fact just as dangerous as they were decades ago.
Working with electricity is just as dangerous today as it was back when Edison first tinkered with it.

Manufacturing parts on an assembly line will rip an arm off or chew up a leg today just as quick as it did back when Henry Ford first pioneered the assembly line process.
We forget to realize that in nearly every profession (Aviation-Construction-Manufacturing-Utility-Refinery-Oil-Chemical) the DANGER is the one constant.  Danger lurks at every corner; it never goes away; it’s always present.

The variable that keeps us safe is how we as employees and leaders manage the risk associated with the danger.  How well we manage that variable is directly related to how safe we keep ourselves at the end of each day.  Technology and Training are key facets to managing the risk; however, we must throw in one more key variable – REWARD!
What’s in it for me?

What motivates humans to behave in a certain manner? REWARD!  What’s in it for me – more money, time off, pat on the back, job well done, no punishment, inner peace, charitable giving, team reward, profit/loss statement? The list can go on and on.

We as individuals, groups, entire companies are motivated by some sort of carrot at the end of our personal stick.  What do I get in return for acting or behaving in a certain manner?  Reward!

When working, the reward can be perceived as so enticing that we fail to manage the risk associated with the CONSTANT danger of our surroundings.  ZAP!!  We end up dead.  Often we die with the very best risk mitigation tools, equipment, and training lying right next to our dead bodies.
For example, in consulting with utility companies, I see that electrical linemen are killed every year when handling electricity.  A possible scenario is the mishap lineman decided the potential reward of taking a short cut to get the job done faster outweighed the risk management tool of checking for absence of voltage every time.  Instead, he assumed absence of voltage a made contact with electricity – DEAD!

In aviation, pilots are killed every year because aviation is dangerous. A possible scenario is the mishap crew decided the potential reward of chit-chatting in the cockpit outweighed the risk management rule of “sterile cockpit” procedures below 10,000 feet, which lessen distractions during high workload activity.  The airplane runs off the end of the runway because the crew failed to set the flaps properly for takeoff – 141 people DEAD!

Plant workers are disfigured every year because assembly lines are dangerous.  A possible scenario is the assembly line worker had her arm ripped off because management decided the potential reward to speed up production would help profits, which caused the assembly line to move faster, which increased worker fatigue which resulted in a her slower reaction time.  This ultimately led to mechanical amputation of her hand.
In everything we do, danger is constant.  However the RISK-REWARD question we must answer if something bad were to happen is, “WAS IT WORTH IT?”
For example, two people are late to work.  They are driving separate cars, driving down the same curvy road and each has the same driving ability.  The danger in both scenarios – automobile driving on a curvy road – is constant.

One driver may decide to speed while texting his boss to explain why he’s late, hoping for no punishment (potential reward).  Was it worth it to reduce safety in order to be on time?

The second adult decides to not text and drive slow.  The potential reward of arriving alive outweighed her personal decision to risk driving faster. Was it worth it to increase safety but arrive late?

Each driver chose to handle the risk associated with the danger of driving on a completely personal level.  Company leadership must keep their finger firmly on the pulse of their individual employees to understand and head off potential errant or unsafe personal behaviors associated with pursing risks beyond what the company believes to be “worth it” if an accident happens.

2 replies
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