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Risk. It’s the magic four letter work of safety management. How do we assess it? What do we do to control it? What is it exactly? 


October 27, 2014
By Walter Heneghan

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Risk. It’s the magic four letter work of safety management. How do we assess it? What do we do to control it? What is it exactly? 

First, let’s be clear about what I mean when I speak of risks and hazards; words and concepts that are often used interchangeably and incorrectly. There is a distinction to be made between a hazard and a risk. From the CRSP Risk Management Guide, I found this: “A hazard is defined as the inherent property of a substance, process, or activity that predisposes it to the potential for causing harm to health, safety or human welfare. Risk is defined as the chance that someone or something will be adversely affected in a particular way by unintended exposure to the hazard. Risk therefore refers to the possibility of danger, rather than actual danger.” So, fundamentally, risk is the chance or likelihood of injury or loss. This injury or loss generally results from the presence of a hazard that manifests itself when the conditions are right.

So what happens when we do a risk assessment? In this process, we set out to identify the task at hand and break down the individual steps of an activity, identifying the various hazards associated with that activity and the consequences of that hazard being released if not controlled. We then apply controls, or barriers, or mitigation measures (whichever term you prefer) and reassess the risk with these controls in place. In most of these applications, there is a risk matrix of some sort applied to provide an “objective” measure of the inherent and residual risks.

I have been musing lately about the benefits and drawbacks of these risk assessment processes and more specifically of the issue surrounding the use of risk matrices. I am certain many of you have seen these images – matrices that address the probability or likelihood of something occurring against the severity of the event, often on a 1-5 scale. They are colour coded and allow us to pinpoint when additional risk management measures are called for. They are a measurement of severity versus probability and their use, in my view, is fraught with error.

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The real issue with these matrices is this:  they appear to provide an objective measure of the risk associated with a given activity by using a completely subjective method to get there. Let me explain: Let’s say that I want to go flying at night to an uncontrolled helipad that has no lighting but is outfitted with retro-reflective cones. I may look at completing some form of black-hole approach into this landing site, so I want to risk assess this activity. I enter the risk matrix and consider the hazard: flight into terrain or CFIT. What is the likelihood of this happening?

Often, I am asked to consider the frequency of this happening previously? When I start this deliberation what dataset should I use? My own company’s experience (perhaps we have done this before with no accidents so the experience was positive and I consider the likelihood of an accident “remote”), or should I use the worldwide global experience where I know there have been multiple accidents with multiple fatalities resulting in a likelihood rating of “occasional”? What about the consequences of an accident from a black hole approach? In the helicopter, or even the general aviation context, we might consider that every accident could result in multiple fatalities and therefore should be rated as “significant” or “catastrophic” and consequently have a higher risk rating. Or we may consider just our own experience, where we have never had an accident on this type of operation and therefore the severity is low. As you can see from this simple example, the subjective nature of the exercise can lead to vastly different conclusions.

Furthermore, this exercise doesn’t consider another facet of risk assessment and risk management, which is exposure. If I am completing black hole approaches every day with all 12 helicopters in my fleet, multiple times per night, do I need to consider how often my operation is exposed to this hazard? Is risk a function strictly of probability X severity or do I need to include exposure?  The answer is not so simple after all!

Risk matrices can be traps and can be misused to deliver a preordained result but with the wrapping paper of a “robust” process. Beware.  In the end, the strength of this risk assessment process is NOT the resulting number produced by the risk matrix. Rather, the real benefit derived from this exercise is the exercise itself; the brain storming by subject matter experts in identifying effective control measures and ensuring that they are incorporated into that company’s SOPs. That is the WIN with risk assessments.


Walter Heneghan is the Vice President for Health, Safety and Environmental Protection with the Summit Air Group of Companies, Ledcor Resources and Transportation, based in Edmonton and throughout Western Canada.


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