Posted by: David Cant | February 10, 2009

The Meaning of RISK ASSESSMENT

Three reasons that the Risk Assessment as a valuable tool, one because it is the law,  two because it it is a useful tool and three because it assists financial appraisal.

To take a different perspective, risk assessment is quite possibly the single most fallacious notion in the panoply of the safety industry. Why? Lets take for a start that, as one reason suggested, it is about “managing risk”. Risk Management is a contradictory concept that has been given meaning by regulations and the industry that has grown up around it.

In actuality, risk is the probability of a negative outcome of an action that is not managed.

Do you therefore manage probability? No, what you do manage is the operation that determines the outcome that you want. Correctly managed, there is no risk as you will always achieve the desired outcome.

Throw your die and the probability of any particular number coming up is always one in six. But to ensure that you always get a six, you do not manage the probability, you control the die; by loading it, putting sixes on all faces, setting it down face up etc.

What risk assessment does is calculates the probability of a negative occurring as a result of a particular action/set of actions. But the laws of cause and effect state that any given action will always lead to a given outcome. Likewise the results of a sequence of actions will also lead to a given outcome.

These laws apply to negative as well as positive outcomes. From a workers perspective a negative outcome is the result of one or more actions that were not intended. If the were not intended then s/he had no control of the operation. A positive outcome results from knowing and implementing a series of actions and conditions that will invariably lead to it.

Thus production requires that inputs are known, implemented and controlled throughout. The operation is managed, the output is guaranteed, no risk. Risk assessment seems to me to be about calculating the probability of a negative outcome occurring.

But if you know exactly what the negative outcome is, them you will know what actions/conditions led to this outcome and the probability is absolute, ie. These actions will always cause this outcome, so why play the game of calculating, when the task should be to determine which of the inputs are incorrect and alter them? On the other hand if you do not know what the outcome will be, but are aware that there could be a number of undesirable outcomes, then again risk assessment does you no good at all.

If you do not know what will happen it is because there are variable within the causal sequence that you are ignorant of, and being ignorant of these, a calculation of probability is no more that guess work, but more to the point is illustrative of the fact that the focus is not on what is required to achieve the desired result.

But, I hear you say, the law says it must be done. Actually it doesn’t. What the law requires is that we carry out our work operations in a way that does not cause death or injury to ourselves or others (though why a law is required to tell us that is beyond me). Anyhow, the fact that subsequent regulations, codes and guidance came up with a risk assessment approach does not mean that this is the only options for workers.

Indeed, successful work operations do not necessarily stem from an awareness of risk, but as I’ve stated, from an awareness of what inputs are required to achieve the objectives of the operation. I would contend that by assessing the risks associated with work operations focuses the mind on whether the risk is worth taking or not, and that leads to “risk aversion” and all the nonsense that that can lead to.

Focus on how to achieve a successful outcome and you focus your thinking on what is required to control the operation rather than on risk taking. This leads to creativity which is at the core of human endeavor and competence.

Remove the language of risk and risk assessment  from the workplace and you can change work behavior and performance and in the process you give workers back control of their competence.

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