Risk Assessments are a Risky Business

What is the purpose of Risk Assessments? Well, for any employer or business owner risk assessments are a legal requirement. The requirement is, specifically, to identify all the risks posed by the business activities to anyone engaged with them and to deal with those risks in line with the Principals of Prevention. Risks are either eliminated at source or limited to the smallest number of people and then those risks that remain controlled effectively. PPE can then be issued to protect against any residual risks which remain. The risk assessment is then deemed to be suitable and sufficient. Job done. But what is the actual PURPOSE of a risk assessment? Historically developed by the US Army, they were intended as a mechanism by which to grade and communicate risk quickly and effectively. The problem is though that the typical 5 X 5 system of grading risk leaves us with a snapshot of risk in colour, number or word which has no context. The risk grading of tripping in a car park and grazing a knee may graded as ‘3’ or ‘low’.  The trouble is that the chances of falling from scaffolding and being killed may be graded exactly the same. The expression of risk in this way leaves us with no actual picture of the chances of something happening and what the consequences would be if it did.

Current matrices commonly in use gives us a 5 X 5 option of grading risk and likely injury on a scale of 1-5 and arriving at a colour, number or descriptive word.

Even though the risk is graded as ‘6’, or ‘medium’ it has no meaning. It might lead to a broken leg or a scratch. It may involve mass injury to lots of people or it may relate to a sprained wrist to one person. It would look and sound exactly the same. I think it is time we re-visited the grading of risk in standard risk assessments and looked at putting the risk in some kind of context, which can be quickly and effectively understood and communicated to others.

The Police use a system for grading intelligence which adds a third element. The source is graded from totally reliable to unreliable or unknown reliability. The information is then graded 1-5 on whether the information is known directly by that source through to information obtained from a third party. The usability of that intelligence is then graded from usable openly to must not be disclosed.

It would therefore be helpful and give context to the grading to give our system a third element as follows.

A  Affects person engaged with issue only 5. Certainty of occurring without being addressed 5. Death or catastrophic injury likely to occur.
B  Affects persons in immediate vicinity and worker. 4. High likelihood of it occurring without intervention 4. Level of serious or major injury likely
C Affects a larger number within the same whole site geographic area 3. May or may not occur depending on other factors without intervention 3. Injury that would lead to hospitalisation or 7-day absence from work likely.
D Affects a geographic area which extends beyond the site 4. Unlikely to occur unless other factors present. 2. Some physical injury likely.
E Affects a whole town/suburb 5. High probability of it not occurring. 1. Trivial or no injury likely.

Grading on this system would give overall context to any potential incident which would be easily communicated and understood.

The chances of falling and being slightly injured in an badly maintained car park might be A,3,2 . We can quicky decipher that this would involve minor injury to one person may occur should the issue not be addressed. The chances of a scaffolding collapse on the exterior of a building which is in use should it not be assembled correctly would some thing like C,4,5. We can immediately see that this is a whole different ball game which involves the likelihood of death serious injury to a wider number of people. It is much more descriptive, understandable and much better at describing the actual situation we are faced with.