What is a Risk Assessment and How to Streamline Them

This welder completed a risk assessment before working on this task

If you were to search the health & safety incident records at many organizations, you’d likely find more than a few instances where an event’s root cause was attributed to “lack of situational awareness”. In some cases, it’s the only root cause identified. But what does it really mean?

In a 2020 post, Alex Paradies from TapRooT explains that situational awareness is a person’s ability to perceive what’s going on in their environment, understand it, and take appropriate action based on this information. In a safety sense, to be situationally aware a person “must perceive a danger, comprehend how that danger poses a threat to them, and then decide how best to navigate that danger to stay out of harm’s way”.

Sounds a lot like risk assessment, doesn’t it? So, to protect workers from unnecessary harm, logic would have it that organizations, amongst their other initiatives, should focus on helping their employees become better at identifying and managing risk in their work. And yet, many organizations continue to struggle to create risk assessment processes that provide real value. 

In this blog, we’ll explore some of the key pitfalls that organizations face when trying to improve their workforce’s ability to manage risk. We’ll also look at a few simple ways to overcome these challenges.

Reduce Unnecessary Complexity

Simplicity is key to driving adoption. The easier it is to do something, the more likely people will do it.  The same principle applies to risk assessment. 

It’s why many organizations create risk assessment tools. By creating standardized checklists, that workers can tick off to identify hazards and required controls, risk assessment is made simpler, more consistent, and more repeatable. 

But checklists don’t inherently lead to good risk assessments. A good checklist isn’t one that enables workers to document every single thing that might happen, or create a bulletproof record that can stand up to legal scrutiny if something goes wrong. Good checklists are designed to stimulate conversation. To get workers thinking about what might happen, and what they need to do to prevent it from happening.

The tendency to throw everything into the proverbial risk assessment pot and create the most comprehensive, air-tight checklist possible won’t necessarily lead to better risk assessments. It’s more likely that the added length and complexity in the document will only make it more difficult to understand and navigate. Instead of talking about what might happen, workers will spend their time trying to fill out the form. In the end, you might get a record for your audit trail, but you haven’t really done much to advance risk competence.

You Might Also Like: How a Digital Audit Program Can Help You Identify Lethal Hazards Waiting to Strike

3 Questions for Effective Risk Assessments

In his book “Workplace Fatalities: Failure to Predict,” Todd Conklin argues that organizations can create simpler and more effective risk assessments by getting workers to focus on three questions:

  1. When you do your work, what hazards will you encounter that have the potential to seriously injure or kill you? 
    Again, this isn’t about trying to list every possible thing that might happen, but instead to focus on the things that could create the worst outcomes. This question helps focus workers’ minds on the critical few items that’ll make the biggest difference between safe work, and not going home at the end of the day.
  • When, not if, things go wrong, what will keep you from getting injured or killed?
    Conklin argues that businesses need to approach risk assessment from the perspective that failure is inevitable. That’s because nothing is perfect – not our equipment, our tools, our procedures, or even us. So as much as workers need to think about what measures are required to prevent something adverse from happening, they also need to think about recoverability. What will protect me when – not if – that thing that I fear happens?
  • Is that enough?
    This question is really designed to get workers to question the adequacy of the controls in place. Are we really thinking about the control measures we select, or are we simply adopting the recommendations from a procedure? We need to remember that most procedures are an idealized version of how the work is done – in perfect conditions. But the conditions workers encounter in the field are rarely ideal. So, are we taking enough time to consider whether these controls are really the right ones?

Stop Disengaging Your Workers

There’s an inconvenient truth that many businesses need to face: many of their workers don’t share their perspective on risk assessment. In other words, they don’t see it as helping them get their work done. Rather, they see it as a barrier to getting their work done.

And for many enterprises, their risk assessment processes and tools aren’t designed for workers. They’re more often designed as a liability-protection instrument of the organization. A way to show regulators that they’ve asked all the right questions and that the incident that occurred was something “unforeseen” and “unavoidable”. And if the worker failed to identify a risk that contributed to the event, the issue is not with the system, it’s with the worker.

For workers that see risk assessment as a barrier or obstacle to overcome, their real motivation is simply to complete the requisite form as quickly as possible. Get it over with, so the real work can begin. As a result, workers blindly check boxes and fill in forms just enough to pass supervisory review, but they haven’t used the opportunity to really discuss how the job should be performed or what risks they might encounter. And that becomes a lost opportunity to prevent harm.

Organizations can avoid this pitfall by engaging with front-line employees to create risk assessment processes that workers can view as necessary tools, not unlike a hammer or tape measure. What checklists, templates or other items would be useful to these workers to stimulate their thinking about what might happen and how they can prevent potential harm? What should be written down versus what can be left to conversation? And how do we make this process flexible enough to account for the variability in work? How can we structure it to ensure that risk assessment is something that occurs continuously, and not simply at the start of the job, after which everyone’s risk detectors are set to sleep mode?

The only real way to get workers to see the value of a risk assessment process is to ensure they’re involved in designing it and making in continuously better. 

Ensure Risk Assessment Processes Match Operational Realities

My former employer had a very rigid policy concerning risk assessment. Before starting any task, the employees involved were expected to complete a standardized, paper-based risk assessment checklist. That checklist, once completed, needed to be reviewed by a supervisor. The intent of this review was to not only ensure that the risk assessment was completed properly and was of good quality, but to offer the supervisor the opportunity to challenge workers on their assumptions and make sure listed control measures were actually in place. If satisfied, the supervisor would sign off authorizing the work to start. 

At one of our largest facilities with an operating footprint spanning hundreds of square miles, the maintenance team on the morning shift consisted of about 25 millwrights, welders, and electricians. The workers were assigned in teams, and would work together to complete multiple assigned tasks throughout the shift. Every task required a risk assessment. And every risk assessment needed to be reviewed and signed off by the supervisor.

But here was the problem: there was only one maintenance supervisor. So, if each work team travelled to their intended task location, and completed the risk assessment, they would have to wait for that single supervisor to show up, review their risk analysis, and sign off before they could even turn a screw. Obviously, this process wasn’t very conducive to running an efficient, and cost-effective operation.

In response, the workers decided to complete their risk assessments each morning in the maintenance shop, after their morning huddle, so they could grab the supervisor’s signature before heading out to the job site. With 10-12 teams, the primary objective quickly involved completing the risk assessment as quickly as possible, in order to get the signature needed to start the work.  They were foregoing the opportunity to engage in a thoughtful discussion about risk, because the key motivator shifted to getting a signature.

And when that process was still considered too slow and cumbersome, the supervisor started signing blank checklists and handing them out to the crews at the start of the shift. Obviously, what the risk assessment process was intended to be in principle wasn’t what it became in practice.

Benefits of EHS Software in Risk Assessment

Ensuring that your risk assessment process is compatible with the way work is done at your business is absolutely critical for an effective and sustainable program. A key benefit of a mobile-enabled EHS software solution is its ability to support more timely and effective communication amongst work teams operating across large geographies. Mobility provides workers real-time access to the breadth of your organization’s EHS platform from anywhere, at any time. This means that workers can access a library of relevant EHS content, from checklists, procedures and instructions at their fingertips from their mobile device, even when offline. 

This flexibility ensures that workers always have access to tools to support effective pre-task risk analysis and work planning wherever they are. And since workers can share information in real-time, supervisors can complete the same reviews and stimulate meaningful conversation with their teams even when they’re not physically at the work location, helping to keep operations on schedule without compromising compliance to safety programs.

Many safety management software solutions offer organizations the ability to leverage best practice risk assessment methodologies out-of-the-box, from Job Hazard Analysis (JSA) and HAZOP, to FMEA and What-If analysis, or easily configure the solution to your company’s preferred assessment tools, including the risk factors, pick lists and risk formulas they require. Firms can even create and share templates and completed assessments with sister facilities to reduce the administrative burden and give teams a logical starting point to assess the risks in their activities.

And by digitizing your risk assessment data, your organization can aggregate data easily from multiple sources to create a holistic, 360° real-time view of operational risk, identify trends in risk exposure, and uncover insights that could inform decision making on strategy, prioritization of actions, and effective use of limited resources. By leveraging advanced EHS analytics features, your risk data could help build predictive models to anticipate where injuries might occur next, so appropriate interventions can be actioned to keep people safe on the job.

Final Thoughts

Risk assessment is one of those activities where improvement is only possible the more times you do it. The more we can engage the people that actually perform the work in honest, direct and meaningful discussions about what might harm them and what to do about it, the quicker organizations will be able to realize lower injury rates and better performance. 

The key is to ask yourself: “If I was doing the work, what would I need to get myself thinking clearly about what could harm me?” And keeping things simple helps keep our people focused on that question so that they’re always situationally aware.

Learn More

Want to learn more about preventing injuries and fatalities? Check out our ebook, Preventing SIFs with Digitization: Reduce Serious Injuries and Fatalities with Technology