Using “margin” for safety analysis

Fighting wildfires is dangerous, in spite of reports that some firefighters don’t see it that way. In  Matthew Desmond’s book, On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, he quotes one:

If you know, as a firefighter, how to act on a fire, how to approach it, this and that, I mean you’re, yeah, fire can hurt you. But if you can soak up the stuff that has been taught to you, it’s not a dangerous job.

An industry has grown up around on-the-job safety. People with advanced degrees frequently come up with new ways of analyzing conditions in the workplace and how to prevent accidents and fatalities. Some of their products are useful.

A system that is new to us is called “margin”. In an article posted this month on the Wildland Fire Leadership webpage, it is described as: “The influence that conditions have on decisions and actions.”

Below is an excerpt from the article, which included the video above.

Comparing the Swiss Cheese Model (SCM) and Margin is not a direct “apples to apples” comparison. The SCM was introduced to the wildland fire community through the L-380 curriculum and is intended primarily, as an “ innovative framework for thinking about human error…[that] scrutinizes all levels in an organization when looking for the causes of human error” (Mission-Centered Solutions Inc., 2007, p. 55). It was designed to pinpoint the causes of an accident or error by describing the holes in defenses that, when aligned through multiple levels, create an error chain. Margin, is focused on the influence that conditions have on decisions and actions; it does not attempt to describe a linear causal relationship among conditions at various levels, rather it describes the collective influence of these conditions. The focus can then shift from cause to understanding the capacity to cope with uncertainty, error and surprise. SCM is intended to make sense of an accident after it happens, whereas margin, while it can be used in accident analysis, is designed to help users describe the potential for the system to do harm before an accident occurs…

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.