Most of us will be aware of the term risk as either the name of a complicated board game that's been known to break up marriages (or was that Diplomacy?) or as a word that is bandied about by the media to make sure we're all properly scared and worried about setting foot outside the door in the morning.

The word has so many different meanings, both formal and informal, the International Organisation for Standards went so far as to define it themselves as "the effect of uncertainty on objectives" [ISO 31000 (2009)].

Hold that thought. We'll come back to it later.

Most of us who have to do it as part of as our jobs know risk assessment from the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (that "etc" is in the title of the legislation). This sets out the duties and responsibilities of employers and employees to prevent injuries happening as a result of work-related activities. It does not, despite what the media would have us believe, force schools to close playgrounds and ban conkers.

But we are all constantly making risk assessments, at home as well as work. We consider the potential for loss and injury every time we stack the dishwasher or grab something from the cutlery drawer. It's why we give small children spoons and don't let them play with knives; it's why we don't mess around with fireworks or go swimming when drunk.

Most of the risks we assess are familiar and easy and have very clear consequences. They are also simple to avoid. Put your knives in the dishwasher point down and you won't stab yourself getting them out; don't give a 2 year-old a lit sparkler and she won't burn herself with it.

Risk assessment, formally, means predicting the likelihood of something happening and the severity of the consequences if it does. For a risk assessment to be accurate and useful, it's necessary to know both the chance of something happening and the severity of its effects.

Something that has an almost-zero chance of happening is low risk, even if the consequences would be severe: the chance of a plane falling out of the sky onto someone's head is non-zero, but so small that it's not something we worry about stepping out the front door, even though the consequences would most likely be fatal. Something is classed as high risk, even if the consequences are fairly mild, when there is a strong likelihood it will occur. If you go out on a sunny day without sunscreen and stay out for hours, there is a high risk of sunburn.

Dealing with risk has its own hierarchy (I've skipped a few as they are more relevant to certain work activities):

1. Eliminate the hazard.
2. Substitute for a lower hazard.
3. Reduce the exposure to the hazard.
4. Mitigate by use of personal protective equipment.
5. Emergency procedures for when things go wrong.

Most of us are pretty good at doing all these things for everyday activities and tasks. We don't let children play with matches, stopped using lead-based paint a long time ago, welcomed the ban of smoking in pubs, put oven gloves on for taking cakes out of the oven and know to dial 999 for an ambulance.

But risk is a subjective thing. What feels perfectly safe to one person may feel horribly unsafe to someone else. Usually the person who feels less safe has a less accurate grasp of the risk, as a result of not knowing the likelihood of something happening and/or the severity of the potential consequences. This assumes, of course, that the person in question has a reasonably healthy attachment to staying in one piece and the presence of a hazard is obvious.

Where things gets interesting is where we fail to assess risk accurately. That's when we flail about on the risk management hierarchy and do whatever we can to reduce the apparent risk, even if whatever we can do isn't really enough to make any difference.


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