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Misunderstanding Hazards and Risks

October 18th, 2013

I heard a good analogy recently about the difference between hazards and risks. “Hazards are the sharks you spot in ocean while standing on the shore. They become Risks when you get in the water.” How well do you help those you lead, understand, identify, and respond to the differences?

With good intentions, many organizations prompt activities to purposefully and proactively identify potential hazards in the workplace. While this is admirable, it becomes a complex issue when there isn’t a shared understanding of what a hazard is and isn’t, and how some turn into risk. But, not all risk will turn into incidents and injuries. Further, if there is a shared belief that “safe means zero risk and safety first”, or “safety is our number one priority”; might there be mixed signals sent?

Consider how this might be interpreted, “They say our goal is zero injuries and zero risks and that ‘safety first’ means we are controlling all the risks, yet we have brought several to management’s attention with no action!” This isn’t just hyperbole, this misunderstanding was the result of a conversation with a key union official within a client organization.   

Let’s provide some further context on hazards and risk. Wikipedia provides a good definition of hazard. “A hazard is a situation that poses a level of threat to life, health, property, or environment. Most hazards are dormant or potential, with only a theoretical risk of harm; however, once a hazard becomes "active", it can create an emergency situation. A hazardous situation that has come to pass is called an incident. Hazard and possibility interact together to create risk.” Note the key points in this, “most hazards are… only a theoretical risk of harm; however, once a hazard becomes ‘active’…”

A further search in Wikipedia provides another good explanation of risk. “Risk is the potential of loss (an undesirable outcome, however not necessarily so) resulting from a given action, activity and/or inaction. The notion implies that a choice having an influence on the outcome sometimes exists (or existed). Potential losses themselves may also be called "risks". Any human endeavor carries some risk, but some are much riskier than others.” Again, some key points to tease out: “Risk is the potential of loss… resulting from a given action”. Moreover, it points out “Any human endeavor carries some risk…”

Some safety advocates propose there is little point in debating terminology. I strongly disagree. How common language is used influences beliefs and behaviors within the culture. The English language has many different meanings for the same word. Have you ever used a word or phrase that was interpreted incorrectly? Of course you have. You know how important it is to use the correct words when communicating with your family. Why should our dialogue within safety be less important? After all, isn’t it our number one priority? Or wait, is it a core value?

- Shawn M. Galloway

Here is a short video on this topic:

Shawn M. Galloway is the President of ProAct Safety and the coauthor of two books, his latest published Feb 2013 by Wiley is STEPS to Safety Culture Excellence. As an internationally recognized safety excellence expert, he has helped hundreds of organizations within every major industry to achieve and sustain excellence in performance and culture.  He has been listed in this year’s National Safety Council Top 40 Rising Stars, EHS Today Magazine’s 50 People Who Most Influenced EHS and ISHN Magazine’s POWER 101 – Leaders of the EHS World and again in the recent, elite list of Up and Coming Thought Leaders. In addition to the books, Shawn has authored over 300 podcasts, 100 articles and 80 videos on the subject of safety excellence in culture and performance.