Risk tolerance is the ignored ‘elephant’ in the room

Risks have to be eliminated, or transferred, or managed, but never ignored. This article unpacks risk tolerance.

To tolerate a risk doesn’t mean that one like to have the risk around, nor does it mean that one never means to reduce the risk or that it impossible to deal with, writes Celeste Erasmus.

It simply means that from the moment, it may be impractical, unaffordable or that technology or circumstances are such that I am willing to live with the risk for the moment, and maybe even over longer periods.

‘It won’t happen to me’

elephantintheroomThe problem arises when risks with a higher likelihood of occurrence is tolerated, or when risks with a low likelihood but potentially hi severity is tolerated because “it won’t happen to me”? This is the scary part of risk management and I see it so many times when I visit workplaces. At first a specific risk is tolerated because of the possible reasons mentioned above, and over time it is almost as if the risk is accepted as part of the cost of doing business.

The risk is never managed appropriately because it was tolerated for so long that people start to think that it will never happen in any case.

Maybe it is happening to you

It is sometimes important to just do a reality check. You might do risk assessments and have all your documents in place. You forget about the elephant/s in the room because you see them every day and nothing happens. Over time, it becomes difficult to see them for what they really are. So take a moment and look at them again, ask yourself:

  • Is your site safe?
  • Do you have the authority to manage the risks on site?
  • Have you consider the hierarchy of controls?
  • Do you know how to Terminate, Transfer, Treat and Tolerate?

Safety risk reduction steps

The rising trend of injuries and even deaths on construction/mining sites makes risk assessment and a comprehensive risk/safety-management system a must for every site.

  • Assess the Hazards

One of the most important steps toward risk reduction is a thorough assessment of all the risks on any job site. This must be done by either a professional adviser or the job site supervisor. Knowing the potential hazards and all of the relevant factors on the construction/mining site can produce a series of regulations geared toward safe working conditions.

  • Make sure workers are properly trained

There has been an influx of unskilled workers on countless construction/mining sites due a limited supply of skilled labourers. Correct training is required before placing this segment of the workforce at risk. Training in the use of certain equipment, as well as explaining what to do when something goes wrong, is very important to safety.

  • Don’t take short cuts

Short cuts in electrical tasks, fall protection and the handling of flammable products can be fatal to workers. Do the job properly, following the outlined steps and procedures.

  • Wear the required safety equipment

Steel-toed boots, hardhats, gloves, goggles and earplugs are all pieces of equipment that can stand between a worker and injury. Make sure you wear these items and that the protective gear is in good shape.

  • Secure all loads

One of the most common hazards on a construction/mining site is the chance of being struck or killed by falling equipment and supplies. Taking that extra moment to shore up or secure a load could save a life.

  • Do not rush

Everyone has other activities or duties that need to be performed during the workday, and often, the first impulse is to rush through a task to get to the next, Construction/Mining requires concentration and time to complete tasks safely and well. Take the time to do the job right.

  • Protect yourself from health hazards

Provide comprehensive training, the correct tools and protective gear to handle the chemicals, asbestos and various solvents on a construction/mining site. Keep MSDS sheets outlining proper medical treatment in a readily accessible place for reference.

  • Always use guards and barriers

Never remove the guards or safety features from equipment or tools. These were instituted as solutions to past safety issues, and need to remain in place for the workers’ protection. Never move job-site barriers without determining that the risk is no longer present.

  • Never work on a dangerous site

Be aware of your surroundings and the risks associated with your own equipment, and check conditions every day, taking into account wear and tear and environmental factors. If a risk is evident, do not work.

  • Report unsafe conditions to the appropriate authority

Risk reduction is a serious consideration on any site, and reported hazards are not taken lightly by any responsible supervisor. Construction/Mining sites are also complex and physically immense, so some risks can be overlooked unless reported.

 Elephants in the room

After all these years, I must still visit a workplace where I can’t identify at least one elephant in the room. Don’t fool yourself, they are still there and tolerating risks does not make them go away.

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Sheqafrica.com is Africa's largest independent SHEQ Magazine, hosting over 2 000 articles and news items since 2007. Sheqafrica.com is owned by the Cygma Group, a global provider of risk management and compliance solutions. Sheqafrica.com is registered as a digital publication with the ISSN.

14 Comments on "Risk tolerance is the ignored ‘elephant’ in the room"

  1. Koos Duvenhage | 11 December 2013 at 17:23 |

    I had an elephant in my caravan last night. There was a grave risk to me that I would be squashed. So I did sent that elephant away.

    • Peter Shields | 12 December 2013 at 11:40 |

      I had an elephant in my fridge. I saw his paw prints in the butter.
      Later when I went to sleep I was feeling very close to the ceiling. I then found him under my bed.
      The problem is that these damn elephants are everywhere, and sometimes the RA officer sees it as a “must be so” and do not question it.
      The worse elephants are those with pink subnglasses. They put on the pink sunglasses to become invisible. Ever seen one?
      See, it works….but you need to look for their paw prints to know where they are. It is called the hidden risks.
      Finally, what is the difference between an elephant and a post-box?
      If you do not know, I’d rather mail my own post.
      And that is where Shane is absolutely correct – and the Construction regulations are failing miserably. The Agent has to be SACPCMP registered, pay R6000 and go through the whole interrogation of competene. The RIsk assessor, only need to stay awake through a two day whining of the types of hazards, to get a “PhD” in HIRA.
      And walk out not knowing how to assess all these elephants.

      I guess when H&S gets it wrong, they do it properly.

      • Koos Duvenhage | 12 December 2013 at 11:54 |

        Why must the agent do everythings? Julius was right, there are too many agents walking around. The ordinary mense must also be able to do a risk assessment. My friend Thembu says he does a risk assessment in his head everytime he has to run accross the N1 to get catch his taxi. My friend Dirk does one on the back of his cigarette box when he has to plan something dangerous, like abseiling to clean the windows. Then there is my ex-wife – everytime I see her I does a risk assessment in writing to prove how dangerous she is. One look from her and I am stukkend.

        Pieter – why is the Jurgen funny? Does my housing conditions amuse you?

      • Peter Shields | 12 December 2013 at 12:06 |

        Thembu is a wise man.
        But crossing the road is one activity. Ordinary people should be allowed to do risk assessments Koos, but only as far as their level of competency goes.
        There is nothing wrong with Thembu’s risk assessment, because if he gets it wrong, he is the only one to die.
        If there are other people’s lives at stake, and one could be yours, would you trust Dirk’s risk assessment? He might run out of smokes and buy a new packet.
        People do not realise the importance of a risk assessment. That is why a two day course is acceptable. After all, for 98% of SA’s people, the workplace is a lot safer than the neighborhood.

        Like comedy central never will.

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for the article. I however have some problems with the person who is actually doing the RA’s. In most cases they have been on a 3-5 day course, learnt possibly one methodology to do a risk assessment. However, i have a list somewhere of over 160 different ways and approaches to RA’s. For example, An Organisational HSE Maturity RA is more qualitative than quantitative, descriptive statistics would be used more. The other problem i have is that the assessor often does not know what the difference is between qualitative and quantitative, often selects the wrong tool to use when doing an RA, (Well lets just use the same one, that we always use).
    In this case the Risk assessor becomes the elephant.
    Anouther issue that gets me are the controls used, 90% revert back to PPE and Training. Now i have no problem with training and telling persons about the hazard, but i do have a problem regarding PPE. PPE is the last resort, and before we get there we need to go through a couple of steps to satisfy “best Practical Means”. The hierachy of controls (Classic Version) firt looks at Elimination, then substitution of hazard, then other engineering controls, then administrative, (which is not only training), and as a last resort PPE. It should therefore be documented WHY the former cannot be done for each hazard identified prior to suggesting what PPE to use. Everybody wants then to play the cost gave…the risk assessor has an accountabliity toensure that in order to meet the laws requirements, he must investigate and state what the alternatives are. (look at the definition of reasonably practicable).

    So in conclusion, Koos, sometime we all get the Elephant in our caravans, he/she is often called the risk assessor, and yes, you must certainly send them away if they are a risk to your organisation.

    Cannot get rid of my elephant though.


  3. Jurgen Tietz | 12 December 2013 at 10:13 |

    Nice metaphor and well written. If you want me to expand on this, please give me a call, as this is a COMPLEX subject and there are many angles to consider, but to me it is the PEOPLE and all the COMPLEXITY that goes with that. Jurgen 011 452 0727

  4. Koos Duvenhage | 12 December 2013 at 10:58 |

    Funny that, my caravan is a Jurgen.

  5. Peter Shields | 12 December 2013 at 11:57 |

    Jipppeeee!!! If we follow this advice, we will all be unemployed.
    “Never work on a dangerous site”
    The term danger is so complex not even the Courts have agreed on its meaning.
    As a professional who installs stuff that allows people to communicate, I will never be able to work on any site any more. All sites I work on is dangerous.
    Every Mine in South Africa, even an open-cast mine, is dangerous.

    And part of the confusion is also reflected in the article.
    Assess the Hazards – then it refers to risk assessments.
    The risk assessment is often not the cause of the problem as a simple yes / no answer is already an assessment. The issue is really, have we identified all the hazards??? Once we have listed them, we can ask, is there a risk – yes / No?
    If No, leave it. If yes, do the mathematical / scientific / statistical analysis that you are comfortable with to prioritise them from HIGH to LOW. Then evaulate the hierarchy of controls (each of them) and calculate the risidual risk – the one with the highest risk reduction, is the control you must implement.
    I have seen risk assessments with two or three high risks and the control is supervision. The rest of the risk assessment is made up of negligable risks and the control measures resembles encyclopedia of work prodecures, and yes PPE is always on the shopping list.

  6. Hi Peter, you are almost making enough sense for me to think there is a real Peter Shields who haunts the sheqafrica website. Most H&S law around the world acknowledges that work entails risk and therefore whilst eliminating risk would be the optimum result, reality dictates this is not possible in many instances which requires various measures to be taken to effectively control risk. Driving on a road at 120km or even 30km/hour will always be inherently dangerous – the engineering controls designed into the vehicle greatly reduces that risk – but then human factors such as erratic behavior will mean the risk can never be totally disregarded – does that stop people driving?

    • Peter Shields | 12 December 2013 at 12:22 |

      ” Driving on a road at 120km or even 30km/hour will always be inherently dangerous ”
      Indeed, but the risk will depend on the medium of transport; bicycle, motor cycle, car, Taxi to Soweto, or Hummer H1?

      • Peter Shields | 12 December 2013 at 12:25 |

        If I may ask.. IS driving at 120km/h in a 60km/h zone more or less dangerous than driving 60km/h in a 120km/h zone?
        Yet it is said that Speed Kills. I believe this not to be true at all. It is the sudden stop that kills. Who then is the killer?

  7. Newtons laws on physics, namely the second law come into play – so I would agree the speed is not the problem, it is the dynamics that surround the speed which will affect whether this contributes to harm. Incorrect use of speed, inability to manage the speed and a myriad of other external factors contribute to a chain reaction that produces a loss making event.

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