I remember one day, our safety training session was going well as I explained some of the steps in conducting a hazard assessment. I explained the importance of rating the hazard based on risk exposure and severity.

An employee then asked the question, “What’s the difference between a hazard and danger?” Looking around the room, I could tell that others wondered the same thing. I had assumed that they knew the difference and made a big mistake. It was time to back up and make the difference clear, as well as easily understood.

It is important that employees understand the difference between hazards and danger. This will make identifying unsafe conditions and behaviors easier. They’ll also have a better understanding of why the control measure is in place and why it must stay in place.

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 are control that we often take for granted.

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

As long as a control measure is in place, danger need not enter into the picture.

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.

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.

On average in 2012, 92 people were killed on U.S. roadways each day in a total of 30,800 fatal crashes. 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.

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, air bags, and they are designed to handle crashes while protecting the occupants.

Training employees to recognize hazards in their workplace can be one of your best investments in driving safety at work.

Register for my free webinar: How Effective Hazard Assessments Improve Your Safety Culture

Hazard Assessments

Safety walks and inspections must be done on a regular basis to identify danger, which are exposed hazards without a control in place. To ensure you’re capturing all potential hazards, a layered approach for safety audits is recommended. Put simply, what this means is, you have different people, groups or team members regularly review different areas. It’s amazing what a fresh set of eyes will uncover.

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. Have set intervals when safety walks are done and record all findings. When a hazard is revealed, an assessment must be performed based on the risk exposure and severity.

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, these would be the hazards that you would address first.

The exception to this would be hazards with a recognized control measure that can be put in place immediately. These should be done first, simply because they can be.

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.

Exposure - How often is the worker exposed to the potential hazard? It could be extremely low, such as once per month for few seconds, or extremely high, 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.

A Shower Provides Greater Danger Than an Alligator

The possibility of injury from slipping in a shower or bath tub is high 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.

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 job positions.

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. 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 improvements are made, the standard work instructions are updated. Thus, safety is built into all work instructions.

Black and White

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

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. It 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 will yield good dividends in fewer accidents and higher morale. The more time we invested in these activities, the less time we will invest in accident investigations.

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

Register for my free webinar: How Effective Hazard Assessments Improve Your Safety Culture