5th September, 2019

Can Risk Ever Be Zero?

When we aim to reduce risk, the obvious target would be zero. 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. But can risk ever be zero?

Can Risk Ever Be Zero? header image

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

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.

But can risk ever be zero?

When we aim to reduce risk, the obvious target would be zero. No risk at all. In a world where we are looking to constantly improve, is the target we are striving towards actually achievable? 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.

First, let's consider cleaning a first-floor window from a ladder. The main risk is 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 then cleaning the window while balancing on the ladder. Not great for risk levels.

Can we eliminate work at height? Remove the hazard? Yes, we can. The work could be carried out from ground level. You can use telescopic poles with cleaning tools attached. No more work at height. Does that eliminate all risks from the activity? No.

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.

Ok, next up, what about cleaning the floor? It's not a high hazard activity. 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.

Prevent contact and reduce the risk

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 your using water near electrical sockets, but the client is not going to let you turn all the electrics off in an occupied building!

You can work in such a way that the risk is greatly reduced. Extra clear 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 there will always be some remaining risk, even if it is tiny.

If you can't get to zero, then how much risk is too much?

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 we 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 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. You do this by thinking about what could go wrong, and minimise the chance of that happening. Which is basically what the risk assessment process is.

Once you know what could go wrong, controls 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. So, you see, in some cases, removing one risk can introduce others.

wood dust
Removing one risk can introduce others

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 by putting in place safety measures? 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 risk is above zero, it may be acceptable. If risk is above ALARP, then it is 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 you can calculate and control it.

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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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