What’s the difference between a Hazard and a Risk?

So much documentation is written about the difference between hazards and risk.

Much of it inadequately defines the difference.

Why is the difference between hazards and risk even important?

Because hazards are the reason for health and safety!

What Is A Hazard?

A hazard is anything that may result in injury or harm to the health of a person.
In truth, it’s hazards (known and potential) that kill and maim people.
Without a hazard, there’s no reason for a safety measure.

This makes identifying known and potential hazards the basis of all health and safety systems.
In fact, it’s Health and Safety 101!

Contrarily, if we don’t even understand the difference between hazards and a risk how can we comply with health and safety laws that demand a risk assessment for virtually every task we send a worker to complete.

No wonder most business owners treat the Risk Assessment as a vampire that needs slaying.
Yet, a risk assessment is the only effective way we know of to identify known and potential hazards. Similarly, it’s the risk assessment where we assess the risk of a hazard. Then we can eliminate the hazard completely or reduce its risk.

What Is Risk?

The risk is how likely it is that the hazard will occur and the consequences if it does.

Risk is the chance or probability that a person will be harmed or experience an adverse health effect if exposed to a hazard.

Many health and safety “professionals”, writing or teaching about the difference between hazards and risk will give examples like these;

  • “A river is a hazard, falling into the river is a risk.”
  • “Stairs are a hazard, falling down them is a risk.”
  • “A knife is a hazard, cutting your finger on it is a risk”

Examples like this make every material thing on the planet a hazard.
Besides, this is not entirely correct and it’s not very helpful in the critical process of risk assessment.

For the purpose of creating a risk assessment, we must – guess what – “assess the risk”.
We do this by assessing two things; the likelihood of a hazard occurring and the consequences if it does.
In fact, this will change according to conditions.

Identifying the Hazard

So, what is the hazard in our above examples?
Is the river, the stairs or the knife the hazard?

  • Falling into the river is the hazard
  • Slipping down the stairs is the hazard
  • Cutting your finger on the knife is the hazard

The Hazard Matrix below will help to identify hazards.

Assessing The Risk

Now, having identified the hazard we assess the risk.
The risk is a combination of likelihood and consequences.
What is the likelihood of the hazard occurring and what are the consequences if it does?
This depends on a host of mitigating circumstances.

Let’s look at our hazard “Falling into the River”.

Here’s the scenario.

Someone’s hanging from his hands over the side of a bridge that crosses the river.
Remember, The bridge is not the hazard and the river is not the hazard. Falling into the river is the hazard.
What is the risk of the hazard occurring?
Let’s look at the circumstances and then use a risk matrix to assess the risk.

The first scenario

  • It’s raining, so the person’s hand grip is tenuous
  • There’s no one around to help
  • The bridge is 100 feet above the river
  • The river is in flood carrying fast-moving debris such as trees and branches

The Likelihood of the hazard (falling into the river) occurring is Almost Certain.
Because of the tenuous hand grip. The person could let go at any time, and nobody is there to help.

The Consequences of the hazard (falling into the river) occurring are Catastrophic.

  • The 100ft fall in itself could kill the person
  • If he survives the fall, he would probably be carried away by the water and possibly drowned
  • The fast-flowing debris could hit him

So then, Likelihood is Almost Certain, and Consequences are Catastrophic meaning the Risk is Severe.

The second scenario

  • It’s a beautiful day, and the person is wearing a safety harness
  • There’s another person on the bridge controlling ropes to the harness
  • The bridge is 10 feet above the river
  • The river is just a trickle

The Likelihood of the hazard (falling into the river) occurring is Unlikely.
The safety harness and the person controlling the ropes make a fall unlikely even if the person loses his grip.

The Consequences of the hazard (falling into the river) occurring are Minor.

  • The 10ft fall is not significant, and the ropes would further arrest the impact of the fall
  • The trickle of water poses no particular threat

So then, Likelihood is Unlikely, and Consequences are Minor meaning the Risk is Low.

Fixing It – (Control measures)

The third and most important part of the risk assessment is, “What are we going to do about it?”
Most assuredly,  there is a third part to a risk assessment!
A risk assessment is not a real risk assessment until it includes ways to fix the hazard.
Above all, we need to either eliminate it or reduce the risk of it.
In particular, this process is known as controls or control measures – just another way of saying, “This is how we’re going to fix this”.

Fixing a hazard becomes simple by using the Hierarchy of Controls. The Hierarchy of Controls is a worldwide standard for working out how to deal with hazards.

First Four Solutions Most Desirable

The first four solutions are the best ones to initiate if at all possible as they reduce the actual exposure to the hazard and drastically reduce the likelihood factor of the risk.

The last two solutions are the least desirable because they admit that the hazard will always be there along with the exposure to people.
The risk can only be reduced, not eliminated, and then just following a policy or procedure or wearing special gear.

When working out how to fix our “Falling Into the River” hazard, we merely start at the top of the hierarchy and ask can we;

  1. Eliminate it?
  2. Substitute the process or the conditions contributing to the hazard
  3. Isolate it?
  4. Initiate an engineered solution such as guards?
  5. Produce policies and procedures?
  6. Ensure the wearing of personal protective equipment?

Notice that a policy and procedure or an item of personal protective equipment may not even be required.
Conversely, it’s only after the completion of the risk assessment when we know if they’re needed or not.

Two Types Of Hazard

There are two types of hazard that occur;
1. The known  – recognition was evident from experience or observation.
2. The unknown  – where a sequence of events happened such as unforeseen damage to a critical bolt or pin that was impossible to spot.

Both these groups of hazards maim and kill people.

Nevertheless,  there’s one proven method of identifying hazards and assessing their risks. Although, to master it we need to know the difference between hazards and risk.

The Risk Assessment.

Many businesses disregard the process of risk assessment for reasons such as lack of time or resources or a perceived lack of expertise.
However, they do this at their peril.

To fail in accurately assessing risk is to leave the business owners, managers and workers vulnerable not only to injury and death but to court actions, prosecutions, fines and even imprisonment.

The full management system of Simple WorkSafe with risk assessment wizard included plus many other features.