All hazards are not created equal! Hazards are different from risk!

To support these two statements, we need to define the two elements that, as Safety Professionals, we sometimes use the terms interchangeably.

As defined in ANSI/ASSE Z10-2012 “Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems”, a hazard is a “…condition, set of circumstances, or inherent property that can cause injury, illness, or death.”. Risk is defined as “…An estimate of the combination of the likelihood of an occurrence of a hazardous event or exposure(s), and the severity of injury or illness that may be caused by the event or exposures…”

We try to identify every possible hazard in the workplace that could possibly injure, make ill, or kill workers. We try to get workers to understand that they need to look for hazards in the workplace thinking that if they can identify every possible hazard then they won’t be hurt by them if the worker corrects them immediately or reports them. This causes the focus on hazards to be overwhelming and somewhat impossible to really accomplish. We can be so overwhelmed by the number of hazards that we say the task is too risky so we will not do the task or we accept that the task is risky, perform the task, and get lucky that no one was injured or killed. At some point, luck runs out and someone will be injured or killed.

Pam Walaski CSP CHMM, an Instructor for the ASSE Risk Assessment Certificate Program, illustrates hazard and risk using a driving scenario similar to this one. We can all agree that driving to work is a hazard – we have the potential to be in a vehicle accident that could injure or kill us. What is the risk that the hazard will affect us? How much risk is there in driving to work? Or, what is the likelihood that we get into a vehicle accident and how severe will our injuries be if we get into a vehicle accident? We cannot do much about the hazard of driving, it is a constant. Other than wearing a seatbelt, we cannot reduce the severity of the injury after getting into a vehicle accident. What we can affect is the likelihood that we get into a vehicle accident. If we can reduce the likelihood and/or the severity of injury, we are reducing the risk that the constant hazard presents. This reduction in risk is by driving defensively, not being distracted while we are driving, following laws such as stopping completely at stop signs, using our turn signals, driving no faster than the posted speed limit, wearing a seatbelt, and similar actions that can be considered safe driving techniques. If we use these and other safe driving techniques we arrive to work consistently without being in a vehicle accident because we have reduced the risk associated with the hazard of driving. If we do not do not use safe driving techniques, we are not reducing the risk, and we arrive at work without being in an accident, that is called luck!

Hazards are constant and are the things that can injure, make ill, or kill workers. Many hazards will not kill workers. Some hazards will injure workers severely and some can cause only minor injury, some hazards cause severe illness and some cause only minor irritation. This depends on the amount of “energy” (can be defined in a different blog posting) the hazard has or creates.

Risk, on the other hand, is used to determine the likelihood and severity of a hazard to cause death, injury, or illness. We can reduce the risk of a hazard by managing the likelihood that the hazard will negatively affect a worker. Where a hazard is constant, risk is dynamic in that it can be managed, reduced, or controlled.

When we talk about hazards we need to keep hazards and risk separate as they are distinctly different. When we identify hazards, we need to focus on those hazards that will cause death or serious injury or illness trying to reduce the risk associated with the specific hazard. This is risk assessment and risk management. We should be focusing on identifying those hazards in the workplace that could possibly severely injure, make ill, or kill workers. This focus will also address many of the hazards that cause less serious injury or illness because they will be reduced, managed, or controlled as a function of managing, reducing, controlling the more severe hazards. When workers have even a basic understanding of hazards and can assign risk to hazards, they will not be overwhelmed and can focus on performing their tasks safely.