Numerous techniques to assess risk are available. Most formal techniques are based on identifying the hazard (the potential for harm), and determining the amount of risk (low, medium or high) by calculating, observing or estimating:

  • the amount of time that employees are exposed to the risk,
  • the number of employees exposed to the risk,
  • how employees are exposed to the risk,
  • the anticipated degree of injury or illness that might be experienced,
  • the likelihood that an unwanted event could occur.

More sophisticated risk assessment techniques might include an estimate of how risk is affected by employee fatigue, ambient temperature, humidity and metabolic rate, tools and equipment being used, and the number of hazards to which an employee is simultaneously exposed. These risk assessment techniques carry ominous names such as hazard and operability analysis, structured what-if analysis, fault tree analysis, and cause and effect analysis.

All of these techniques are useful and provide a comfortable estimate of risk so that priorities can be established for implementing control measures. But for the employee in the field just before that employee starts a task, these techniques can be cumbersome.

How much risk is acceptable?

One of the best methods to determine how much risk is acceptable is to use Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). A well-written SOP provides step by step how an activity or task should be performed. Ideally, these steps maintain the risk to an acceptable level. Each step might also include the personal protective equipment or other risk-reducing techniques such as body position, hazardous energy control, or barriers that should be used.

Another method to determine the acceptable degree of risk is using standards. The OSHA standards provide guidance on how much risk is acceptable to the government for some tasks. The National Electrical Code informs electricians about how much risk is acceptable for electrical installations.

Another technique is planning activities using various types of permitting systems. A work permit, a confined space entry permit, a hot work permit, and permits to work on live electrical apparatus are checklists to guide the users through a series of questions and activities to be performed before the work starts to control the amount of risk.

Simple field risk analysis techniques

The employee in the field has access to all of these techniques and should use these techniques to the fullest. Standards and SOPs are generally written in blood and have been developed for a compelling reason – prior injuries or worse. Permits are intended to guide the employee with a series of questions or tick boxes on issues that must be considered before the task starts. When used properly, acceptable risks that the government or the employer will accept can be achieved.

But since we all have our individual degree of risk that we will tolerate, we need one more step to determine if the risk is acceptable personally. The employee needs to use simple techniques that give the individual some indication of how much risk he / she will accept.

Here are four useful questions:

  1. Would I want my adult child performing the job this way? If you would not want your adult child performing the job in the manner that you are about to perform the job, perhaps the risk is too great for you or anyone else.
  2. Am I losing sleep over the risk that I’m asked to take at work? Try to separate all of the other work stresses and concentrate on the risk. A special plant manager that I work with is this company’s “go-to” plant manager. Whenever one of this company’s plants is having problems, he has the skills to straighten these problems out. Whenever he gets a new plant, he always calls me and asks if I’ll provide a safety and health audit. Last year, when he got his new plant assignment, he called me as usual. When I arrived several weeks later, I asked Tom my usual question: “Have you lost any sleep since you arrived?” Tom told me about holes in the floor that the previous plant manager didn’t have a concern about, but Tom sure did. So Tom had arranged for a professional engineer to join us that week to develop a solution.
  3. Am I doing the job the way that my family would want me to do the job?  When I worked for OSHA, I was involved in over 100 fatality and catastrophe investigations, and since that time I have examined thousands of work-related injuries and illnesses. Whenever an employee gets hurt on the job, yes, it hurts. But I believe it is the employee’s family that suffers the most. I have seen divorces, children become estranged, suicides, suicide attempts, depression, bankruptcies, job loss, and other consequences of serious employee accidents.
  4. If something goes wrong, would I have wished I had done this job another way? If something goes wrong, and we would not change anything, then that is an acceptable risk. If we suspect or know that if something goes wrong, there is a better way to do the job with less risk -- do the job that way now.


 “No risk” does not exist. The government and our employer have, for many tasks, defined acceptable risk through SOPs, checklists and standards. But that doesn’t mean that the risk is acceptable to you as an individual. My hope is that you have an employer who values you as an asset and works with you so that every job is done with risk that is acceptable to both the employer and the individual.