Risk assessment is a fundamental component of health and safety management and is the basis of identifying the reasonably practicable measures necessary to control risks as required by the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.  Does this mean we shouldn’t take risks - that kids can’t climb trees, we should avoid contact sports - or can we manage the risk?

"Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash" - General George Patton

It has been said that we in the health and safety profession only exist to slow down work by putting unnecessary and unrealistic controls in place. We are seen as inherently risk averse. While there may be some truth in that statement, I and most of my peers do understand that risk management is never about NOT taking risks, but it IS about reducing that risk to an acceptable level.

To validate this, I can give you some personal examples where assessing risks, or at least an awareness of the principles, allowed me to “survive to fight another day”. During the 1990s, I was serving in the British Army and was deployed on operational tours reasonably frequently. It is an accepted truth that the military exists to be put in harm’s way – you cannot fight a war, or in this case act as a UN peacekeeper, without putting people at risk.

"Danger can never be overcome without taking risks." – Latin Proverb

On one occasion I was tasked to investigate a stockpile of hazardous chemicals next to a proposed UNHCR refugee camp. On arrival, we were stopped at a vehicle check point (VCP) operated by one of the warring factions (impromptu VCP’s were a frequent occurrence). This checkpoint was manned by two very drunk soldiers, both armed with AK47 rifles, and they appeared distinctly unfriendly. We were all sober, we outnumbered them and we were also armed. But, as UN “peacekeepers”, our rules of engagement did not allow any aggressive action unless in defence. We also had no backup and there did not appear to be any Officers in change of the VCP.  Our only option was to negotiate. After much talking – via interpreter – keeping calm, making direct eye contact and with our weapons lowered, we prevailed.

On a separate occasion we were travelling in convoy through the Balkans.  After two hours driving we stopped in a deserted service station on the edge of Plitvice Lakes National Park for a “brew”.  The lakes are a beautiful location and we intended to use the tourist paths to briefly explore.  We could hear distant explosions and assumed this was artillery fire, which we considered was no danger to us.  A local appeared and in the course of conversation (again via interpreter), he told us the bangs we could hear were caused by wildlife stepping on landmines.  We reviewed our plans, finished our break and continued our journey.

What are the risk lessons from these encounters?
  1. Understand the hazards: Whatever you do it is vital to understand the hazards and the risks that you might encounter while undertaking your assigned task.
  2. Be prepared: Having control measures to mitigate is essential.  We were well prepared to deal with exactly this type of hazardous situation, but without the rigorous and realistic pre-deployment training we all undertook, the outcome would have been very different.
  3. Involve those on the ground: A core element of any health and safety plan is to involve and engage workers. Talk to those people on the ground before starting work and involve them in the risk assessment process – they usually know better than you.  In the latter case, if we had not encountered the “worker” and taken his assessment into account, serious injuries or even fatalities were highly likely.

So to summarise, risk assessment is nothing new. It’s not about being risk averse and it’s not about stopping all risky activities – wouldn’t life be boring if we did that?  It IS about managing the risk, and putting reasonably practicable controls in place without drowning in paperwork and procedures. In the words of Judith Hackett (Chair of the UK Health and Safety Executive):

“There is a need for a sensible and proportionate approach to risk management, in short, a balanced approach – this means ensuring that paperwork is proportionate, does not get in the way of doing the job, and it certainly does not mean risk elimination at all costs.” 

About the Author
Bruce Campbell

Senior Associate - Health & Safety (& Environment)

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