Hazard and risk: understanding the difference

In the wake of Lord Young’s Review, and DWP Minister Chris Grayling’s speech saying that from now on the HSE was going to concentrate on “high hazard” industries, it occurred to me that perhaps the minister might have conflated use of the terms “hazard” and “risk”; many people still don’t get the difference.

Hazards: All human activity exposes people to hazards. Hazards are activities or “things” with the potential to cause harm. They can physical, chemical, biological, or even psychological.

Risk: Risk can be understood as the chance that exposure to a hazard will result in harm at some specified level. Hazards with major potential for harm that are well controlled can actually present low levels of risk, because they are well managed and consequently the chances of harm occurring are low. But moderate hazards that are poorly controlled can present significant risks because of the high probability that being exposed to them will result in harm.

So levels of risk (high, medium, low or trivial) can be assessed by looking at the hazard and the probability that it will cause harm.

An example: a circular saw is a hazardous piece of machinery. However, in the hands of a properly-trained operative, the risk of harm would be low (making the activity high hazard but low risk). In the hands of an untrained person, the risk of harm could be very high (making the activity high hazard and high risk).

When allocating resources, decision makers have to consider small numbers of people exposed to high potential hazards and larger numbers of people exposed to lesser hazards – but which can actually result in a greater burden of injury.

In practice, political judgements tend to be skewed towards high hazards with the potential for activities to result in death or life-changing injury, rather than longer-term and more chronic forms of harm.

Lord Young’s Review

RoSPA has been keen to try and make some sense out of Lord Young’s ideas about managing health and safety in what he terms “low hazard” workplaces such as “offices, shops and schools”. They may not have the obvious kinds of harmful energies found in manufacturing, extractive, transport or construction settings but there are obviously still health and safety issues in these environments that need to be addressed.

For example, even small, service-based firms which might at first glance seem quite safe will certainly have significant issues such as fire, occupational road risk, etc. – not to mention issues such as slips, trips and falls, stress and the possibility manual handling injury as well as the potential for threats and violence.

On top of that, there are likely to be facilities management issues such as safe access and egress, safe cleaning, safe storage, safe vehicle parking, lifts, gas and electrical safety, and possibly asbestos and legionnaires’ disease problems. There may be building maintenance and construction, design and management activities too. All these issues need to be addressed and managed safely.

If health and safety is built into an organisation’s ethos, from the boardroom to the shop floor, this kind of safety management should come naturally, and will be relatively straightforward. There should be no burdensome red tape: health and safety is not synonymous with bureaucracy, contrary to the beliefs of the tabloid press.

When asked to define “non-hazardous” at a meeting of the CBI Health and Safety Panel, Lord Young accepted there was a need in schools, for example, to deal appropriately with safety in chemistry labs, workshops and other hazardous activities such as outdoor adventure activities. Obviously all these issues need to be addressed adequately but in a proportionate way.

The inescapable fact is that the distribution of the workforce has continued to change dramatically over the last three and a half decades since the Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced. More people than ever work in offices, call centres, shops and so on. There may be fewer fatal and major RIDDOR events in these settings but troublesome minor injury events still happen, and ill health and wellbeing issues have now become more important than accidents. Absence due to work-related ill health is now almost twice that due to accidental injury.

What we have got to help get across to ministers is that it is the risk profile of jobs and not necessarily the hazard profile of work environments that is critical. (After all, low hazard can still mean high risk and vice versa.)

For example, if you work in an office but suddenly have to do a lot of work-related driving your risk profile increases dramatically. Car and van drivers who cover 25,000 miles annually for work face the same risk of being killed at work as someone employed on a fishing trawler. If you are in a customer-facing role you are likely to face threats or even assault. If you work long hours in a call centre you may face stress and ergonomic problems such as musculoskeletal disorders. If you work next to poorly maintained air-conditioning equipment there is a danger of legionnaire’s disease and so on.

So it is not just a question of your proximity to the traditional forms of “high hazard” found in manufacturing, agricultural or construction settings. Many of the issues which cause accidents at work are in fact common to both industrial and non-industrial environments, particularly slips and trips, and manual handling injuries.

We need to be clear that health and safety management is not just relevant to traditional industries. Almost every kind of work has its issues and if they are not properly managed and regulated, people will be hurt and resources and business opportunities will be squandered.

Roger Bibbings

RoSPA’s Occupational Safety Adviser

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