In light of several high-profile industrial accidents that have occurred in recent years, I’ve been wondering if the practice of conducting risk assessments and acting on those assessments could have prevented these tragic events. For example, a review of the risk assessment included in the risk management plan for the West Texas fertilizer plant describes its prevention program as follows:
“The Company has implemented a prevention program that includes Safety Information, Hazard Review, Operating Procedures, Training, Compliance Audits and Incident Investigation.”
As any experienced environment, health and safety professional knows, these are all administrative controls. Administrative controls by themselves will not prevent accidents and are subject to significant human error. In order for risk assessments to be fully effective, engineering controls must be the primary means of accident prevention. We need to conduct risk assessments and use engineering controls to drive the risk down to the lowest possible level.
So what is a risk assessment?
A risk assessment is the practice of determining a qualitative risking ranking for a given activity or operation. The level of detail in the risk assessment needs to correspond to the complexity of the activity. In its simplest form, risk can be defined as:
Risk = Severity of the hazard x The probability of its occurrence
Risk assessments must be documented for all significant activities and should answer:
- What can happen and why?
- What are the consequences?
- What is the probability of their future occurrence?
- What can be done to mitigate the consequences of the risks or that reduce the probability of the risk?
- Is the level of risk acceptable? If not, what are you going to do to lower the risk?
Like many other professions, we tend to get excited about and involved with the latest trends in the field. However, the practice and art of performing risk assessments is one that cannot be forgotten. Risk assessments must be a fundamental component of any environmental, health and safety programs. They are also a requirement for many regulations and for consensus-based standards and voluntary programs. While industrial hygiene monitoring, compliance audits and sustainability initiatives are all important activities, they should be performed within the overall context of risk to the organization. Otherwise, these worthy efforts can be wasted.