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Guest Column - February 2010

Risk Management

Preventing Injuries or Preventing Lawsuits?

By Jim Moss


Risk management is always a hot topic. It is my full-time job. However, after watching risk management change for 25 years, I am becoming either a little jaded or very concerned about the direction of our industry.

Risk management used to mean to prevent claims or lawsuits. You wanted to run your program, design your park or build your playground in a way that prevented you from paying out money. Nowadays risk management means no injuries.

At some point, the goal and definition of risk management changed from preventing claims to preventing injuries. We went from worrying about paying money for a bruised elbow or a scratched knee to totally preventing them. Our patrons either went along with this idea or encouraged it, so that now they too believe that the places they play should be safe.

The reality is we cannot make anything safe. No matter how low to the ground, how padded or how well designed, someone will figure out a way to use it differently or in a way that allows them to get hurt. This idea that humans encourage getting hurt has even been given a name: Risk Homeostasis.

Risk Homeostasis, or as it was first known, Target Risk, is the theory that humans are not meant to be comfortable when they are safe. Target risk is defined by Gerald Wilde, Ph.D., as "the level of risk a person chooses to accept in order to maximize the overall expected benefit from an activity." Once we find a safe spot in our world, we push the boundaries to make it unsafe again. The examples are taxi drivers in Munich, Germany, who had an average stopping distance with their older model cars and braking systems. When they got new cars with antilock brakes, the average stopping distance decreased significantly. However, accidents stayed relatively the same, although there were slightly more accidents with the new ABS brakes. Studies have shown that skiers wearing helmets ski faster than when they ski without a helmet.

The opposite of that is also true. A study from Leeds and Bolton universities found drivers traveled closer to cyclists in bike lanes then when there were no bike lanes. Another study found drivers traveled 6 inches closer to cyclists wearing helmets than those not wearing helmets. If we think you are safe, we will put you at greater risk.

When you apply this theory to a park, playground or camp, it explains why health centers and emergency rooms always have patrons. Safe is not what we want life to be. Look at the idea this way: The person who was satisfied eating mice did so because there was a low degree of risk in hunting mice. The person who ate the mastodon had a much higher degree of risk and probably a higher return for his efforts. He received more protein for his family and had a lot of food. Our ancestor who went out and took greater risks probably increased his family's chances at life. Are we preprogrammed to go for greater risk? If so, how can we make something safe?