To risk assess, or not to risk assess: that is the question.

Joshua Earle
“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against the sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.”

The question for Hamlet was whether to continue to exist or not, the question we pondered was slightly less morbid. In his recent article “ What are the 3 big problems with current safety practice?”, Dr Drew Rae suggested that one of the problems with the current practice of safety is that ‘risk assessment neither reduces risk nor increases understanding of risk’. At our recent YSP Old event, we argued for and against this statement. Moreover, while no side came out the winner, there was definitely a passionate voice, let’s just say no one was laying down their guns and surrendering!

So let’s break down what the Young Safety Professionals of Queensland thought…

Aha, but wait I hear you say. You haven’t established the context!

Well we are talking occupational health and safety Risk Assessment, and yes, in terms of that there is still a broad scope. Is it corporate risk, strategic or operational risk, is it an assessment of change or activity? In general, the discussion around this statement was regarding the risk assessment of activity, task or ‘ work ‘.

The arguments that agreed with this statement can be categorised into two main points:

  1. Reasoned Action
  2. Limiting Liability

The theory of reasoned action (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1967), aims to explain the relationship between attitudes and behaviours within human action. Moreover, that the decision an individual makes for engaging in a behaviour is based on the outcomes they expect as a result of their action. Many of the arguments to suggest that risk assessment neither reduces risk nor increases understanding related to people’s attitudes towards having to complete a risk assessment versus wanting to do one. That risk assessment is ‘ subjective and dependent on the intent of their use’. Leading to behaviours such as ‘ tick-n-flick and complacency’. Behaviours that are reinforced by the lack of consequences because ‘ no one is looking at them [risk assessments]’.

Others argued that ‘ lag time between logging something and getting action reduces buy-in’ and that the ‘ documenting exercise’ by administrative staff ‘r educes consultation between management and workers ‘. Suggesting that these consequences also reinforce the attitudes and behaviours as mentioned above.

Regarding limiting liability, some argued that risk assessment is a tool used to ‘r educe liability rather than focusing on fixing the issue’. There was also a suggestion that they are used as evidence to ‘ demonstrate an assessment of risk, acceptance and justification that existing controls are reasonably practicable’.

In a more sweeping statement, it was suggested that a ‘ Blanket Approach’ to risk assessment neither reduces risk nor increases understanding versus a ‘ Tailored Approach ‘. Posing the question to OHS Professionals…

Quantity vs. Quality — at what point are we not adding value?

In contrast to those who agreed with the statement, others argued that this, in fact, is not really a ‘’ with the current safety practice. Suggesting that even though risk assessment may not reduce risk or increase the understanding of risk, the process empowers people to take ownership. That risk assessment which is team-based engage workers and give ‘ more power to the people and not to head office!’. And yes, while they may not be the perfect, they may not reduce risk, they do ‘ get people into the habit of looking for risks up front’. So is there really a problem with that?

In my personal opinion, I do not think we have necessarily reached a quietus to this argument, but we have definitely chewed the fat. From the YSP’s point of view, it seems more likely that this generation is going to ‘ take arms against the sea of troubles’ and not ‘ suffer the slings and arrows’. Moreover, while we may not see the end of risk assessment per sae, it is the YSP’s who are keen to explore safety…dare I say…’differently’.

This article is 1 of 4, that the YSP Network of Queensland are posting after our first event on the 22 February 2017. I have had the privilege to summarise the thoughts, ideas and comments raised by the amazing group that attended the event.

Reflecting on the arguments raised by the YSP’s, it became apparent their views on this statement were very much at an operational risk management level. That is, the day-to-day risk management activities. Which perhaps reflects on the nature of the positions the YSP’s currently hold within their organisations. As such, I call to all you more senior-positioned OHS professionals to ensure you engage with YSP’s and coach them on how to think and function at a more strategic level within their organisation.

Join the Young Safety Professional Network Group in LinkedIn and YSP also have a national twitter account you should follow @YSP_Aust


Naomi is a certified OHS Professional and the founder of Safe Expectations, specialising in the facilitation of Enforceable Undertakings. She is a pragmatic safety coach who challenges ‘the way it has always been done’ and helps leaders during pivotal times set safe expectations and make safety happen.

Connect with Naomi at

Founder of Safe Expectations — pragmatic OHS Professional helping leaders make safety happen. Speaker/Advisor/Coach

Originally published at on March 4, 2017.

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