9th February, 2023

Can Risk Ever Be Zero?

When we aim to reduce risk, the obvious target is zero. Ideally, we would eliminate the hazards and get rid of the risk. If we can create a risk-free environment in the workplace, we know everyone will be safe and go home healthy. But can risk ever be zero?

Can Risk Ever Be Zero? header image

Every business needs to carry out an assessment of risk for its activities. Risk assessment is a legal requirement, after all. And why do we need risk assessments? To control hazards and reduce risk.

Ideally, we would eliminate hazards. And get rid of the risks. Create a risk-free environment for our workplace. That way, we know everyone is going to be safe at work, and go home healthy.

And while it's a reasonable expectation for workers to go home safe and healthy from their job, can risk ever be zero?

Can all risks be eliminated?

A risk level of zero would mean eliminating all risks until there is no risk at all. In a world where we are looking to constantly improve, is the target we are striving towards (zero risk) actually achievable?

I don't think so.

To test this out, let's take a look at a couple of example activities and see if we can eliminate all of the risks from them.

Test 1: Window Cleaning

First, let's consider cleaning a first-floor window from a ladder. The main risk here is falling from height.

You need to carry your cleaning tools up the ladder and use them when you reach the window. You're going to struggle carrying a bucket up the ladder safely. And once you get up there, you need to clean the window while balancing on the ladder. While this was once common practice, it's not great for risk levels.

window cleaner with a ladder

Can you eliminate work at height to remove the hazard? Yes, you can.

The work could be carried out from ground level. You can use telescopic poles with cleaning tools attached. No more work at height.

Fantastic! You've removed the main risk from the activity. And that's a good thing. But is the task now zero risk? No. There are still other risks.

You still have manual handling, and you're still using cleaning chemicals. You still need to consider where you are standing. Are there other people or vehicles that could knock into you? Are there doors that could open into where you are working? You're going to be looking up, so you won't have the best awareness at ground level during the cleaning process. Is the attachment fixed securely, could it fall?

There are still risks involved with the activity, but you have reduced the risks by eliminating the hazard of working at height.

Test 2: Floor Cleaning

Ok, next up, and sticking with a cleaning activity - what about cleaning a floor? It's not a high-hazard activity. It's indoors and you are at ground level. Can the risk be zero here?

You can prevent contact with any cleaning chemicals, by using a mop and gloves. You can wear safety footwear to prevent slipping. You can put signs out warning everyone else that there is a wet floor.

And you can work in such a way that the risk is greatly reduced. Clearly display warning signs. Never work with the bucket behind you. Don't over-fill the bucket. Use a new pair of gloves when yours become damaged or contaminated.

But the risk still isn't zero. People could ignore the sign and slip anyway. They could walk into the sign and fall over it. Your gloves could get a hole in them. You could knock your bucket over and slip on the spillage. And you're using water near electrical sockets - the client is not going to let you turn all the electricity off in an occupied building!

Why can't all risks be eliminated?

So we didn't manage to totally eliminate all risks from our test activities. And you probably never will. Unless you don't do the activity at all, but that's not really how work gets done.

But there will always be some remaining risks, even if they are tiny. But some risk is not zero risk.

All risks can't be eliminated because health and safety risks are a part of life. Even if you were to stay in bed and never get up, you are at risk of bed sores and poor health due to lack of exercise.

putting a bandage on a injury

The world is full of health and safety risks. Electrical faults happen, even on new or well-maintained equipment. People have heart attacks while driving. Freak weather events can catch you out. Even getting to work is a risk. You could get struck by lightning. You could trip up on the pavement, fall and hurt yourself.

We like to think that every accident is preventable, but we can't always stop things from happening.

But just because all risks can't be eliminated, doesn't mean some risks can't be. In fact, the top control in the hierarchy of risk control is elimination. So just like we eliminated work at height in our window cleaning example, you should eliminate the biggest risks where you can.

Do you need to be at zero risk?

You might not get to zero, but you can reduce the risk.

Maintaining equipment reduces the risk of a problem or fault. Staying healthy reduces the risk of a heart attack and other medical problems. Checking the weather forecast reduces the likelihood you will be caught out by any unexpected wind, rain, and storms.

At work, the goal of your risk assessment isn't to reduce risk to zero. But it is to reduce risk. As close to zero as you can get. To do this, think about what could go wrong, and minimise the chance of that happening. This is basically what the risk assessment process is.

Once you know what could go wrong, control measures can be put in place to make the risk smaller.

For example, the risk of someone falling from height is much greater from a ladder than it is from a scaffold platform with proper edge protection. They no longer need to hold on and have both arms free to carry out the work. Less chance of falling, or dropping something from height. It could still happen, but the risk is much lower.

You are not expected to eliminate all risks, because, quite simply it would be impossible.

When sawing wood, you could reduce the risk of wood dust inhalation by wearing a dust mask and carrying out the work outside, where ventilation is better, so that dust doesn't build up in the workplace. But that exposes you to the weather, and sun exposure increases the risk of skin damage.

sawing wood

In some cases, removing one risk can introduce others, your challenge is to choose the best solution that creates the lowest risk.

Of course, the best way to control risk is to eliminate it. Where you can, you should. But you are not expected to eliminate all risks. The law doesn't require this, it wouldn't be practical.

Can you use a saw or a drill without any risk at all? No. Can you control the risks and prevent harm by putting safety measures in place? Yes!

What the law requires is for risk to be reduced as low as is reasonably practicable. This is known as ALARP. This means controlling hazards and minimising risks as much as you can.

If there is a safer way of doing the job, you should take it. If there are control measures that will help keep your workplace safe, you should use them.

If the risk is above zero, it may be acceptable. If the risk is above ALARP, it's too much.

The risk can't be zero, but it can be reduced. There will always be some level of risk remaining. This is known as residual risk.

You can find out more about residual risk and the part it plays in health and safety management in our blog post residual risk: how to manage the risks you can't stop.

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This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.

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