The Real Meaning of Risk
Updated: May 4, 2020
I've written a lot about potential risks around the workplace, but what does risk actually mean?
It's important to understand that risk is not a hazard, even though (for some reason) they have become kind of synonymous. They do not mean the same thing!
A hazard is something that may become a source of harm or have detrimental health effects on people.
Risk is the probability of a person or persons being harmed or suffering those detrimental health effects.
Here's an example that's easy to understand.
Imagine you've just got to your place of work, you clocked in and you're walking to your work station. You spot a spillage that turns out to be oil from a nearby container.
That spillage is a potential source of harm until it has been cleaned. You go and report the hazard to your safety people and they erect a barrier and an alternate route around the hazard.
This minimises the risk of people coming to harm due to the hazard being confined and the foot traffic diverted.
The action taken to minimise the risk is known as a control measure and there is a ranking system to govern which should be used.
The Hierarchy of Control Measures
Control measures are basically actions taken to eliminate the hazard and likelihood that someone will be injured. Unfortunately, not all hazards can be completely eliminated so you need to reduce the risk and that's where the hierarchy of control measures comes in.
Hazard elimination - Right at the top of the hierarchy is, of course, elimination. Completely eliminating the hazard completely removes the risk involved. For example, our oil spill would be cleaned up, the barriers would be removed and foot traffic could resume it's normal course.
Hazard substitution - Substituting the hazard is not guaranteed to completely eliminate it due to the potential for the substitution to bring it's own, separate hazards. Generally, however, the substitution protects the user from the original hazard meaning the overall risk of harm or ill health effects is significantly reduced provided proper care is taken to address any introduced hazards.
Hazard isolation - If the hazard cannot be substituted then the next control measure is isolation. This is something like our oil spill example from earlier. The hazard was isolated by erecting barriers so no foot traffic could access the area containing the hazard. Another example would be restricting access to dangerous chemicals and equipment to anyone untrained to use them. This usually has the effect of minimising the risk even though the hazard is still present.
Engineering controls - There are many work processes where it's impossible to eliminate or isolate a hazard. This means there is always going to be risk, but you can use engineering controls to reduce it. For example, imagine you're using a machine that cuts through steel bars using a massive saw blade. There are several hazards when using a machine like this but we can reduce them by redesigning the process; Erecting a strengthened clear barrier between you and the blade, installing jigs or fixtures to the machine to aid in guiding the steel where it's supposed to be, installing extraction systems to reduce harm through air pollution.
Administrative controls - Administrative controls basically make all of the above happen through introducing and maintaining standard operating procedures and safe work practices. They also involve ensuring proper training and information is provided to workers to reduce the risk of them coming to harm due to a hazard.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) - PPE is all the safety gear you should be using if you're performing a job that involves hazards. I've been over before how PPE is the last line of defense and it is generally used in combination with a number of other control measures. PPE is extremely important; if there are signs up around your workplace stating that PPE is required, this is managements way of telling you that if you don't use it your risk of coming to harm is substantial. Always, always use PPE where it's required.
If you want to learn more about identifying hazards, controlling risks and the hierarchy of control measures you can take the new COSHH Risk Assessor Certification™.