Have you become victim to the normalization of risk?

Many years ago while mowing the lawn, I reached a far spot in the yard where a small stump was located. As I had done many times before, instead of using the trimmer, I lifted the front end of the mower and gently lowered it over the stump to cut the high grass around it.

Unfortunately, I lowered it too much and hit the stump with the blade and bent the mower shaft. Thus, I learned a lesson in risk management called the normalization of risk.

Also known as the normalization of deviance and risk normalization, this common behavior could be creating risk exposures for you and your workplace.

A simple explanation of the term is that at one point, a conscious decision to accept a risk not normally taken leads to trying it again. Eventually, the risk-taking behavior becomes standard.

A slow creep to accepting risks that were not originally acceptable can happen to anyone or to an entire organization if it isn’t guarded against.

The term, normalization of deviance was introduced by Diane Vaughn, a sociologist who investigated the Challenger shuttle disaster. The standard view at the time was that middle-management caved-in to pressure from above to launch using an amoral cost/benefit calculation.

Her point of view was that the organization developed a habit of accepting known risks that had not created problems before. The O-ring that brought down the shuttle and killed seven astronauts was a known issue. It had been damaged in fourteen of twenty-four prior flights. Since it had never failed, it was considered an acceptable risk by the organizations.

Another more recent major example is the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the loss of 32 lives. The day of the sinking was not the first time the ship had sailed close to the island to allow passengers to take pictures.

While these are large disasters, normalization of risk can creep into and affect seemingly mundane aspects of work.

If someone takes a shortcut to be faster or more efficient and nothing bad happens, the process begins. HSB sees equipment losses every day that are caused by shortcuts that have evolved into standard practices and these losses have resulted in lost business and headaches for all involved.

These ingrained shortcuts often revolve around operation or maintenance activities on equipment, such as neglecting to test low water devices on boilers, plant operators silencing “nuisance” alarms without investigating or maintenance that is not performed because “we’ve never had a problem with that.”

It becomes easy to see these behaviors are wrong when your production is stopped for weeks while a machine is repaired.

In business, almost every action requires some acceptance of risk. The key is to make conscious decisions about the risks you are willing to take. This involves not allowing poor habits to create unnecessary risk.

Take a few minutes today and look around to identify what habits your business has taken on that do not support your risk tolerance. What risks have you found that have now become part of standard process?


© 2016 The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. All rights reserved. This article is intended for information purposes only. HSB makes no warranties or representations as to the accuracy or completeness of the content of this article.


Patrick Jennings

Pat is the go-to engineer for boilers at HSB. He has been crawling around, studying, talking and writing about boilers for almost 30 years.


  • Great article, Pat! I wonder if those who made the decisions concerning the Sultana’s boilers would recognize the term “normalization of deviance”?

    • The first one that I thought of was the number of soldiers on one steamboat. During the Civil War, it became commonplace to ignore passenger capacity and overload steamboats with soldiers. In late April of 1865, the war was effectively over and there was no reason to put over 2400 people on a boat designed for 376. But they did.

  • I think this is an excellent topic – applicable across almost everything we do in society. Checking texts in cars, going long in changing oil in car, not replacing an old hot water heater, etc. One may never have a car crash, engine damage or a ruptured water tank, but one is walking a fine line with disaster on the other side. Best practice is to address the situation concurrent with financial protection in the event one misses the mark.

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