I was reading an article the other day on workplace hazards.
The writer was a professional health and safety consultant. While reading, I began to realise how many business owners and managers are wasting valuable time, money and resources.
How? By creating procedures and assessments that are not relevant.
Because of a common misunderstanding about hazards and risk!
I was talking to a stranger a short time ago. When she found out that we developed software for managing health and safety, she almost had a conniption spitting fit!
She hated her job, but one aspect stood out as the primary target for her hatred. Every Friday the whole crew had to go on a “Hazard Hunt”.
They were made to write down all the workplace hazards they could find and hand the paper in. The stranger remarked that people would virtually write down anything like “the stairs”, “the power points”, “the hot water urn” etc. Every week saw a repeat identification of the same so-called “Hazards”. It wasn’t the “done thing” to hand in an empty sheet.
What’s happening here? Well, the failure of a system for one thing, even though the intentions may have been excellent and well-meaning.
How Some Consultants Define Workplace Hazards
The consultant’s article was trying to define the difference between a risk and a hazard and how it was essential to understand that difference. But they failed!
You see, the example used was a bottle of a poisonous chemical on a shelf. “This is a hazard”, the consultant wrote. “There is a risk that someone could drop the bottle and receive a skin reaction. With the right controls in place (e.g. non-spill container; training; and PPE), this is not very likely. Consequently, the risk is low.”
This example leads back to the “Hazard Hunt” person. Everything in the workplace was a hazard – a bottle of poison, electrical point, stairs, ladder etc. Effectively, everything is a hazard!
How should the hazard have been defined? The example should have shown that receiving a skin burn is the hazard.
The risk is how likely it is to happen and what the consequences are if it does.
Not everything in the workplace is a hazard. It only becomes a hazard when circumstances combine in a way that can cause harm or injury.
The bottle of poison is not a hazard. Receiving skin burns is a hazard.
What Is The Risk of receiving a skin burn? The risk is;
How likely it is to happen – this will dramatically change based on the circumstances. For example, was the bottle labelled correctly and stored safely?
What are the consequences if it happens – this will also change with circumstances, for example;
Is the poison caustic or acid-based?
Could it be consumed internally?
Can it come in contact with the skin?
What part of the body can it come in contact with e.g. eyes, mouth etc.?
Is Everything A Hazard?
Are we nitpicking here? Not while today’s powerful health and safety laws demand good hazard management. You at least should know what a hazard and risk are!
The terminology is important! There are rarely multiple definitions in the law.
Let’s use another example, a car.
Using the consultants understanding of hazard and risk, the car is a hazard. There is a risk of someone driving it incorrectly and having an accident. If they drive correctly the risk is low.
So let’s take another look at his.
The car is not a hazard.
A collision with another car is a hazard. Hitting a pedestrian is a hazard.
The risk (the likelihood of it happening and the consequences if it does) depend on circumstances. For example;
Let’s say the car is being driven at 150km an hour by a drunk driver. The likelihood of the hazard occurring is “Very Likely” and the consequences, if it does occur, could be “Catastrophic”. Therefore the risk is “Severe”.
What if the car is being driven at 5km an hour, by a careful driver and on his driveway. The likelihood of the hazard occurring is “Unlikely” and the consequences, if it does occur, could be “Negligible”. Therefore the risk is “Low”.
So if you’ve not correctly defined the difference between a hazard and a risk you could be wasting valuable time and money chasing non-existent workplace hazards.
Now you should also be aware that anything has the POTENTIAL to cause a hazard. To the overcautious (bordering on paranoid) person, there IS a hazard in everything. Consequently, even sitting at a desk handwriting a letter could cause a hazard, right? The roof could cave in and crush you. Termites may have eaten the flooring causing the chair to drop through.
What Is The RISK?
So while there is a POTENTIAL hazard in almost anything, from a workplace risk assessment perspective, we are concerned with the likelihood of it happening and consequences if it does!
This is called RISK.
Risk is the chance or probability that a person will be harmed or experience an adverse health effect if exposed to a hazard. It may also apply to situations with property or equipment loss, or harmful effects on the environment.
It’s the RISK of the hazard that determines the urgency and extent of the control measures we need to put in place.
If you go around identifying dubious workplace hazards that are beyond the expectations of any reasonable person, you’re risking something more critical. In particular, the credibility of your health and safety system with the very people you’re trying to protect – your workers.
You could also be risking losing a court action if an accident happens! Why? Because you spent so much time identifying non-existent hazards that you missed the real one that was the cause.
There Is A Better Way!
Find a simple, straightforward method of creating a risk assessment undertaken by you, the business owner, in partnership with workers who do the job every day.