Understand hazards to minimise risks
Although the words “hazard” and “risk” are often used interchangeably when dealing with workplace health and safety issues, their meanings and applications often differ in the workplace
The words hazard and risk have different meanings that could be misinterpreted. Knowing and understanding the difference between them may assist in simplifying matters when addressing workplace health and safety issues.
It is common to spot signs such as “under-construction” or “wet floor” in a workplace. These signs are there to avoid any risks in hazardous areas, which have the potential to cause harm to something or someone. Workers therefore have to be cautious around these areas to avoid the “risk” of being harmed or experiencing an adverse health effect.
The basic difference between a hazard and a risk is:
The Oxford Dictionary describes the word “hazard” as simply “a danger”, which is correct, but it needs further interpretation. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) describes a hazard as “any source of potential danger, damage or harm that can be caused on something or someone”.
The CCOHS states that a risk is the chance, or probability, that a person will be harmed, or experience an adverse health effect, if exposed to a hazard. Ultimately, a hazard poses a risk in a workplace.
CCOHS classifies hazards into six categories;
• Biological – bacteria, viruses, plants, animals, humans, and others. For example: doctors may have direct contact with patients. They therefore have to use personal protective equipment (PPE) when they draw blood, or during an operation, to ensure that they have no contact with bacteria or other related viruses.
• Physical – noise, radiation, chemical exposure and magnetic fields. For example: exposure to radiation can affect a worker, leading to cancers or other related ailments.
• Ergonomic – improper setup of a workspace and repetitive movements. For example: working in an unconducive or restrictive workplace can affect the productivity levels of workers. As a consequence, the work may be poorly done, or not done at all.
• Psychosocial – stress, violence and mistakes. For example: a worker’s stress can be hazardous in a workplace, resulting in flawed communication, or errors that could harm other workers.
• Safety – slipping/tripping, equipment malfunctions and lack of resources. For example: a shortage of PPE can be seen as a hazard, which could result in employees being injured.
The CCOHS says that it is important to note that risk is not the same for everyone and there are many factors that influence the degree of risk. The level of risk depends on both the nature of the hazard and the nature of the exposure.
For example, exposure to toxic fumes in a workplace may pose a high risk, and less exposure to toxic fumes may pose less of a risk. However, even a product with a low hazard rating can pose a high risk if exposure, or the number of frequent exposures, is high.
Nonetheless, the overall goal is to minimise exposure to hazards, and consequently minimise the risks.