Topic letter 25

Stick to your plan

This second letter on the topic Life Saving Rules focuses on how to reduce risk by sticking to our plans. The implicit message of several of the Life Saving Rules is that improvisation enhances risk. These rules make the case for "look before you leap" approach. How does our brain treat plans and how can we benefit from this knowledge? That is the subject of this letter.

Which rules are we talking about?

In this letter I focus in particular on two of the Life Saving Rules "Work with a valid work permit" and "Follow prescribed journey management plan". Both stress the importance of good preparation. During the preparation process, we pay attention to analyzing how an activity can carried out successfully and which problems might be encountered while executing the plan. So a plan and a permit can also be seen as a knowledge document.

How does our brain treat plans?

You Probably know the feeling of being awoken with a start (from sleep or a daydream), realizing that youíve forgotten or overlooked something. The subject of this insight is usually not directly connected to activities of that particular moment. It seems to come out of the blue. The insight may be accompanied by a shudder throughout the whole body. This is the result of flexing oneís muscles, due to a sudden increase of blood pressure, heart rate and glucose levels in the blood. In fact both body and mind are quickly race in a heightened state of alertness, ready to deal with the newly discovered problem. All these phenomena are the result of an unconscious risk scanning process.

What is risk scanning?

Risk scanning is a permanent brain process that checks both our past experiences on loose ends and our future plans on possible risks. It is an unconscious process that works both day and night without our noticing it. Some neuropsychologists claim it is the most important function of sleep: while there is no new input of stimuli, it checks all our experiences and plans on possible failures and stores the most relevant experiences in our long term memory. As such, it is a very powerful system that helps us to survive.

Can we influence risk scanning and, if so, how?

A basic question is whether we are able to consciously influence an unconscious brain process? Fortunately thatís possible. When asked Mohammad Ali (Cassius Clay) what was his strongest weapon in boxing, he said: "during my training I visualize every possible movement of my opponent and how Iím going to benefit from it". Stated differently, the game is being won while preparing it. Visualizing is a very conscious way of triggering risk scanning. Less intensive ways, such as closely observing the planned activities, have a similar effect. A necessary condition for activating risk scanning is that you master the process. You cannot mentally prepare for any process which you donít understand.

Briefing and LMRA

A briefing on the assignment, especially in combination with a Last Minute Risk Assessment, has a similar effect. The brain becomes activated once more to determine whether there are risks associated with the coming task. Paying special attention to what is about to happen is enough to activate risk scanning. Once started it just needs some time to digest all the information. Unfortunately, this time is not available when people suddenly change their plan or have no plan at all, which means that the brain has no opportunity to scan risks. Besides that, the input of others will also be missed. Shellís incident research shows that the chances of a fatal incident increase in such cases.

Preparation works

It is for this reason that these particular Life Saving Rules contribute to safety, especially if others have contributed to the plans. Together you know more. And thinking of Mohammad Ali, even if you are well prepared, you can still lose a game. When the same reporter interviewed him after a rare defeat and asked what the reason was, he replied: "my opponent was better than me in visualizing the game".

Juni Daalmans

May 2013


More information on brain based safety can be found on and in the book "Human Behavior in Hazardous Situations. Best Practice Safety Management in the Chemical and Process Industries." 2012 Elsevier

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