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Improving Health and Safety Through Risk Assessment

January 1, 2007  By Pulp & Paper Canada

Every day people make choices based on their understanding of the likely consequences, sometimes accepting uncertainty, taking known risk, and facing hazards deemed unacceptable while avoiding others …

Every day people make choices based on their understanding of the likely consequences, sometimes accepting uncertainty, taking known risk, and facing hazards deemed unacceptable while avoiding others deemed acceptable. We make these choices based upon our perception of the consequences that often does not reflect the reality of the situation and the known expectations.

Assessing risk involves more than just our gut feeling. We can become complacent in the fact that we have worked on machinery, for example, for so long that sometimes our judgement becomes clouded as to what is risky and what isn’t. we must rely on tools to help us determine the probability of loss or injury.


First though, we must understand risk and the many philosophies surrounding the term ‘risk.’

Concept of Risk

In non-technical contexts, the word ‘risk’ refers, often rather vaguely, to situations in which it is possible but not certain that some undesirable event will occur. In technical contexts, the word has many uses and specialized meanings. The most common ones are the following:

* an unwanted event which may or may not occur

* the cause of an unwanted event which may or may not occur

* the probability of an unwanted event which may or may not occur

* the statistical expectation value of unwanted events which may or may not occur

* the fact that a decision is made under conditions of known probabilities (“decision under risk”)

Examples: Lung cancer is one of the major risks (1) that affects smokers. Smoking also causes other diseases, and it is by far the most important health risk (2) in industrialized countries. There is evidence that the risk (3) of having one’s life shortened by smoking is as high as 50%. The total risk (4) from smoking is higher than that from any other cause that has been analyzed by risk analysts. The probabilities of various smoking-related diseases are so well-known that a decision whether or not to smoke can be classified as a decision under risk (5).

Risk perception

Risk is very much in the eye of the beholder. There are obvious differences in how people perceive risk.

Several factors influence this differential interpretation, including:

* Personal experience of the adverse effect/event

* Social/cultural background and beliefs

* The ability to exercise control over a particular risk

* The extent to which information is gained from different sources

* There are other considerations — for example, it has been shown that people have a tendency to overestimate very low risk and sometimes to underestimate very high ones.

Understanding risk assessment

Risk Assessment is a series of logical steps to enable, in a systematic way, the examination of the hazards associated with jobs, tasks, equipment, machinery, etc. Risk assessment is followed, whenever necessary, by risk reduction. When this process is repeated, it establishes a common process for eliminating hazards and implementing safety measures.

Risk analysis is the information required for the risk evaluation, which in turn allows judgements to be made based on attained information.

The areas that are looked at for risk analysis are:

* determination of the limits of the machinery

* hazard identification

* risk estimation

Risk evaluation

After risk estimation, risk evaluation shall be carried out to determine if risk reduction is required or whether safety has been achieved. If risk reduction is required, then appropriate safety measures shall be selected and applied, and the procedure repeated. During this process, it is important for the risk assessment team to check whether additional hazards are created when new safety measures are applied. If additional hazards do occur, they must be added to the list of identified hazards.

Risk reduction

If a hazard is deemed acceptable once identified, assessed, and classified — no control is required. If the hazard is deemed unacceptable, then a control measure must be selected. Control means eliminating the risk or reducing it to a satisfactory level.

To be effective, a control must satisfy four criteria:

* It must adequately control the risk to eliminate the danger

* It must protect all workers who are likely to be exposed

* It must not create a new hazard or risk in the workplace

* It must not create an environmental hazard outside the workplace

There is also an order of precedence for controls:

* Design to eliminate (most effective)

* Design to reduce hazard/risk

* Provide safety devices

* Provide warning devices

* Provide special procedures, training, rules, etc.

Controls can be implemented at the source, along the path, or at the worker (or in combination).

Summary on risky business

Organizations that take the steps outlines in this article are well on their way to becoming a best practice organization. It is through this systematic process that hazards are identified, risk is estimated and, if required, hazards are controlled through risk reduction.

This process produces documentation that provides organizations with a list of known hazards, how risky these hazards are and what they’re doing about it. Not only does it provide a means of due diligence, but more important, provides a framework of reducing the hazards in the workplace — making workplaces as safe as possible.

Jerry Traer, CRSP, is a PPHSA Program/Training specialist. This article is an excerpt from the Fall 2006 PPHSA Guardian, a publication of the PPHSA.

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