Mythbusting: You can’t Reduce Severity
- Date: Monday 28th November 2016
Over the years I have met several training delegates and auditees who told me a similar story: “Our safety department won’t let us reduce the severity rating on risk assessments”.
These people worked in a host of different industries: Construction, rail, manufacturing and the public sector. They were using risk assessment methodologies that required them to score severity and likelihood.
It happened again recently and I decided it is time to call out the industry on this issue.
I urge readers to think about their own stance: Is it sometimes possible to reduce severity of harm as well as or instead of reducing the likelihood of harm occurring?
Anyone with a reasonable grasp of the principles of prevention, a cornerstone of how we manage risk, will hopefully say “yes” and have a number of examples. I offer just a few of my own.
Reducing likelihood and severity
I once undertook a health and safety survey at a galvanizer which had historically used a strong bleach solution to clean metal work prior to dipping it into molten zinc. In the past, staff had come into frequent contact with the solution and suffered damage to their skin. The galvanizer had redesigned the bath, changed the dipping process and altered the PPE regime to reduce the chance of people getting the solution onto their skin (i.e. reduced likelihood of harm occurring).
The managers trialled different concentrations of bleach solution and found that a much weaker (and much cheaper) concentration was equally effective at cleaning the metal work. In the event that the liquid came into contact with people’s skin it was far less harmful (i.e. severity was reduced). This was supported through improved welfare arrangements enabling operatives to promptly wash off any solution.
We can also tackle energy sources on a number of fronts. For example, I was inspecting a manufacturing site and noticed a very noisy motor (feeding air handling equipment) above a production area. It could not be moved outside (it would cause a nuisance) and it was uneconomic to replace it with an intrinsically quieter motor. A noise assessment was instructed and presented a range of options. The motor could be suitably maintained and have acoustic treatment to reduce the amplitude of noise it produces.
Duration, frequency or amplitude of noise exposure could be reduced by effective organisation of the workplace (e.g. positioning the motor a suitable distance away from longer duration jobs, such as stacking, wrapping and packing or vice versa). The employer might then consider the use of PPE. Routine monitoring of the arrangements and audiometry testing would identify if controls are slipping. Collectively, these measures will serve to reduce exposure to the hazard, the likelihood of harm resulting from that exposure and the potential extent of that harm (i.e. severity): We would not reasonably foresee rapid and significant hearing loss.
Reducing severity only
The whole premise of fall protection systems, such as nets, is that while they do not reduce the likelihood of someone falling, they reduce the consequences of a fall. Someone could obviously still be injured but far less severely than if they fell onto a concrete floor.
Why say “you cannot reduce severity”?
Behind this instruction may be a well-meaning sentiment that we should reduce the likelihood of a hazardous event occurring rather than protecting against the consequences. I concede there are situations where the foreseeable outcome will always be dire (e.g. a building catching fire).
However, a dogmatic stance that severity cannot be reduced is more than just a technical inaccuracy: It undermines effective and proportionate risk management. These are some of my concerns.
- Managers are not being equipped with an understanding of the principles of prevention and are not being helped to think more broadly and creatively about how to manage risk.
- It can fuel a risk-adverse mind set, where people are more inclined to stop activities due to a perceived inability to change their potentially awful outcomes.
- If organisations use a scoring matrix, it will keep some risks artificially high and continually on a ‘worry list’. This could have two effects: Desensitising people to risk (“all our risks come out moderate to high – don’t worry about it”) and diverting time and attention away from the issues that really matter.
If you are at loggerheads over this issue, it may be useful to talk with workers and managers to get their views and collect examples. A few photographs, perhaps turned into mini-case studies, could become useful discussion starters and training aides. This will help us adopt the role of credible, solution-focussed enablers and coaches. Potentially, there’s a discussion to be had about how useful it is to numerically score risks but that’s one for another day.