As a safety professional, I pride myself on being able to clearly explain the topics I present in each session; however, even I catch sometimes myself making assumptions about workers' understanding of safety terms. In a past training session I was discussing how to properly conduct a hazard assessment and reviewing the importance of hazard exposure and severity when an employee asked the question, "What's the difference between a hazard and danger?" I could tell from the group reaction that others had the same question, and I realized I needed to back up and clearly illustrate the difference between these two terms as they apply to workplace safety.

In any workplace, it is important that employees understand the difference between hazards and danger because they are separate terms with an important relationship to one another. When employees have a clear understanding of both these terms and how they interact, they will be better able to identify unsafe conditions and behaviors. They’ll also have a better understanding of why the control measure for any given hazard is in place and why it must remain in place to prevent future danger.

The Relationship: A Hazard Brings the Potential of Danger

We work and live surrounded by hazards, yet we are usually not in any real danger. We live in a hazard rich world, but we don’t give it much thought due to the safety controls put in place to protect us. These controls are preventative protections that we often take for granted.

A safety hazard is simply an unsafe condition or behavior that could lead to injury. A safety control is the device or process put in place to protect us from risk of injury due to that hazard.

As long as a control measure is in place, a safety hazard need not lead to actual danger.

For example:

  • For the hazard of moving parts on equipment, we may use guards as the control measure
  • For the hazard of falling from a high level, we may use a fall arrest system as the control measure
  • For the hazard of extreme temperatures, we may use personal protective equipment as the control measure

You get the idea. As long as the hazard has been identified and a control is in place to protect us from the identified risk, no danger need exist.

The process of identifying hazards and applying effective safety control measures to them is why we are able to perform all kinds of potentially dangerous daily activities with confidence, such as driving.

When I jump into my car for a trip to Kansas City, which is three hours away, I am confident that I will arrive without an accident, even though people die each day in the U.S. from fatal car crashes. Since we can’t control all potential road hazards, such as the actions of other drivers, modern cars are built to offer some protection to occupants in the event of a crash. Modern vehicles offer safety controls such as seat belts and air bags, and they are designed to handle crashes while protecting the occupants.

The hazards that involve road travel are many and various, but for most identified hazards a control measure is in place. If my vehicle is in good condition and I obey all traffic laws, I can drive with minimal fear of danger.

We have made road travel safer than ever thanks to the continual evaluation of hazards and reinvention of effective safety precautions. Ideally, your workplace can experience the same level of confidence that all hazards are well identified and prepared for. Having employees that clearly understand the difference between hazards and danger is the crucial first step to ensuring they are able to recognize hazards in their workplace. Properly trained employees who are confident in their knowledge of existing hazards and the potential dangers that could ensue without safety controls are the front line in workplace safety. Investing in this training can be one of the largest drivers of improved safety outcomes in your workplace.

The First Step: Hazard Assessments

Safety walks and inspections must be done on a regular basis in order to identify dangers—exposed hazards without controls in place. To ensure you’re capturing all potential hazards, a layered approach for safety audits is recommended. Put into practice, this involves having different people, groups or team members regularly review different areas. Having fresh sets of eyes continually assessing all areas will uncover far more potential hazards.

Performing safety walks or some type of regularly scheduled inspections for hazard identification is an important component of any OHS management system. Take a proactive, structured approach with your assessments. Have set intervals when safety walks are done and record all findings.

Each identified hazard should undergo a risk assessment. This assigns a level of potential danger. For instance, if I were conducting a safety walk of a work area and recognize 12 hazards without proper control measures in place, a risk assessment would give each hazard a rating and determine which hazards presented the highest potential danger to workers. Typically, those that present the highest potential danger would be the hazards that you would address first.

The exception to this would be hazards without an existing safety control for which a recognized control measure can be put in place immediately. These should be done first, simply because they can be taken care of right away and eliminated (learn more in The Hierarchy of Hazard Control).

When assigning a level of potential danger, the critical factors to base the risk assessment on are risk exposure and risk severity.

Assessing Risk Severity

How severe could the injury be from the identified hazard? It could be as small as a pinched finger or as severe as the death of one or more employees.

Assessing Risk Exposure

How often is the worker exposed to the potential hazard? It could range from extremely rare, such as once per month for a few seconds, to extremely often, such as the entire shift. One example of this that is common in many factories is exposure to excessive noise.

In the U.S., OSHA requires employers to monitor noise exposure levels in a way that accurately identifies employees exposed to noise at or above 85 decibels (dB) averaged over 8 working hours. For those employees, hearing protection must be provided (find out more in Noise: The Safety Hazard 10 Million Workers Are Exposed to Every Year).

The Big Picture: A Shower Provides Greater Danger Than an Alligator

The possibility of injury from slipping in a shower or bath tub is high simply due to a high exposure level. Most of us shower or bath daily, and each time we do this we face the potential of a slip or fall. An estimated 234,094 nonfatal bathroom injuries were treated in U.S in 2008.

By comparison, an alligator attack has a much higher severity level, but a low exposure level. In Kansas, I am more likely to get hurt in the shower than by an alligator.

I know this might be a silly example, but you get the point. Exposure and severity are the two perspectives that you use to assess the threat of injury.

The Play Book: Job Activity and Hazard Assessments

Another valuable activity for searching out potential occupational health and safety hazards is to capture and review all work tasks associated with any given job position.

I strongly recommend that all employers put standardized work in place. Standard work becomes the “Play Book.” It shows all work tasks an employee will perform as part of their job. It also shows the safest, most efficient way to perform all needed tasks.This means employers must review each task, and this is often where issues such as poor ergonomics are identified.

The ideal orientation for a new hire would go something like this: If I came to work for you as a new employee, you would give me a document that outlines all activities I will perform for my job. For each identified task, there are instructions showing the safest and most efficient way to perform the listed tasks, as well as information on potential dangers of unsafe behaviors.

As improvements are made, the standard work instructions are updated. Thus, safety is built into all work instructions and all employees are made aware of potential hazards in their position from the outset.

Be Clear and Proactive

Performing structured safety inspections, safety walks, and assessing all identified hazards and control measures insures a proactive approach for flushing out potential dangers in the workplace.

Reviewing all work tasks and creating standard work gives employees a play book they can follow. These activities create a foundation for the control of work hazards. Safety walks and standard work instructions provide a proactive approach to safety. This approach lays out every identified health and safety concern in black and white for employees.

It does not matter if your work environment is a factory, construction site, or a restaurant, identifying hazards is a key component of an OHS management system. The time and attention given to safety training and understanding will yield impressive dividends in the form of reduced accidents and elevated morale. The more time invested in these activities, the less time we will need to invest in accident investigations.

Do your employees understand the difference between a hazard and danger? Do you have a structured approach for identifying hazards and controlling for them? If not, get started as soon as possible and see how much easier it is to use a proactive approach for reducing accidents and preventing future danger.