As a safety professional, I pride myself on being able to clearly explain the topics I present in each session. However, I still sometimes catch myself making assumptions about workers' understanding of safety terms.

In one of my training sessions on how to properly conduct a hazard assessment, an employee asked, "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 go back a few steps and clearly illustrate the difference between these two terms as they apply to workplace safety.

Hazards and dangers are separate terms but they have an important relationship to each other. Having a clear understanding of both these terms and how they interact allows employees to better identify unsafe conditions and behaviors. They’ll also have a better understanding of why a specific control measure is in place for any given hazard and why it must remain in place to prevent future danger.

Hazards Brings the Potential for Danger

A safety hazard is simply an unsafe condition or behavior that could lead to illness or injury.

We work and live surrounded by hazards, yet we are usually not in any real danger. We can go through our day without thinking them much because of the safety controls that are in place to protect us. These controls are preventative protections that we often take for granted.

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.

This is something we do in everyday life without even noticing. The process of identfying hazards and applying effective safety control measures is how we do risky things like driving without being regularly injured.

When I jump into my car for a three-hour drive to Kansas City, I do it in full confidence that I will arrive without an accident, even though people die from fatal car crashes every day. We can't control all road hazards, including other drivers, but modern vehicles offer safety controls like seat belts and air bags to protect us in the event of an accident.

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

Ideally, your workplace hazards are well identified and prepared for. Making sure employees clearly understand the difference between hazards and dangers is the first step to ensuring they are able to recognize hazards they face while working. 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

Regular safety walks and inspections allow you 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. Have different people, groups, or team members review different areas. Having fresh sets of eyes continually assessing all areas will uncover far more hazards.

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

(Learn about Improving Compliance by Incorporating Conditional Logic and Analytics.)

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 about 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 an injury caused by the identified hazard be? The answer might range from anything from a pinched finger to multiple fatalities.
  • Assessing Risk Exposure: How often are workers exposed to the potential hazard? This could be as infrequent as every few months when a piece of equipment needs to be serviced to almost constantly, as is often the case with harmful noise levels in industrial settings.

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 bathe daily, and each time we do this we face the potential of a slip or fall.

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 Playbook: Job Activity and Hazard Assessments

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

I strongly recommend that all employers put standardized work instructions in place. Standard work becomes a playbook. 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.

(Find out How to Use Standard Work Instructions to Improve Workplace Safety.)

Be Clear and Proactive

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

Reviewing all work tasks and creating standard work gives employees a playbook 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 you 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.