Are EHS risks all the same? While your first instinct might be to say, “Of course not,” I’d ask you to consider whether the risk of a human fatality far outweighs the risk of an ergonomic back related injury?
Lest you think I am some sort of ogre, let me be blunt in saying that nothing is more important that a human life. However, as EHS professionals, we often have to make judgments and recommendations around how much safety is enough?
Take your personal life, for example. We all drive automobiles. Did you know that according to the National Safety Council, 2013 Injury Facts, your lifetime risk of being killed in a car accident is 1 in 108. Today, our automobiles have a high level of safety features which generates this 1 in a 100 lifetime risk (rounding a little for simplicity of discussion).
How much more would you be willing to pay for your car, if it could be made safer so that the risk of dying in a car accident in your lifetime was 1 in 1,000 or ten times safer? Would you pay an extra $10,000? $50,0000? Higher? What is the value of your life?
Whether we realize it or not, as EHS professionals, we make these decisions all the time. Do we require more personal protective equipment? Do we require more equipment guarding? Do we require total redesign of equipment to eliminate a specific hazard? How do we know we are making the best decisions when we have limited resources?
Let’s go back to my opening question: Assuming the cost to implement each project is equal, when would an ergonomics project that would prevent several lost-time back injuries a year be a more important project than one could prevent a single fatality?
What if your facility has a history of several ergonomic back injuries per year from a poorly designed work station, but a potential fatality risk of 1 in 100 per year? Which project should you recommend to your management if you are down to your last available dollars? Would you invest to prevent the expected four or five lost time injuries in the next year or to reduce the 1 in 100 year potential fatality risk?
This is an important question as an EHS professional and this is a question where I believe an appropriately developed risk matrix can be an important tool. When a risk matrix is developed with the axis being: Likelihood (in this example the two likelihoods are multiple per year vs. a 1-in-100 per year risk) and Severity (in this example, the severities are lost time injuries versus a fatality) it can help drive a reasoned and less emotional discussion of the best decision to make.
While I said earlier, nothing is more important that a human life. However, in this scenario, based on a Likelihood and Severity Risk Matrix approach, my decision would be that the ergonomic project was actually a better decision. This is based on how we have defined the risk matrix at my company.
I would love to hear from you on if you would agree or how you would approach a decision like this.