Balancing awareness and anxiety in OHS risk management

It is important not to pretend that there is zero risk of an adverse outcome when it comes to managing and minimising risk, unless there is actually no exposure to the hazard that creates a risk, according to an academic expert in OHS risk management.

Instead, it is much better to try to quantify the risk (even on a qualitative basis) and this should then be communicated to the potentially affected people (such as workers or sometimes members of the general public) in clear, simple ways, said Dr Tim Driscoll, professor of epidemiology and occupational medicine in the faculty of medicine and health at the University of Sydney.

He recommended sitting down with those involved or exposed to a risk to find out what they are concerned about and answer their questions honestly. “If there is uncertainty about the size of a risk, say so,” said Driscoll, who recently presented the Dr Eric Wigglesworth Memorial Lecture as part of the AIHS National Health & Safety Conference in Melbourne this week.

“Try to put the risks in perspective, so that others can make up their own minds as to whether that is something they should worry about. This is easier said than done, of course, especially when the absolute risk is very low.”

There are a couple of ways that WHS professionals can help in the process, according to Driscoll. The first is to provide guidance in terms of the absolute increase (or decrease) in risk arising from a hazard, even if just in a qualitative way, and how to interpret this.

“Helping organisations and workers to understand the difference between absolute and relative risk can also be important, especially when there is concern an article reporting what seems to be a high relative risk,” he said.

Help with advising organisations or facilitating discussions between management and workers about exposures and the risks they might entail, is also important.

This can be particularly helpful when the risk is very low, Driscoll said: “Words or phrases such as ‘negligible’, ‘minimal’, ‘essentially zero’, ‘not worth worrying about’ – all of those might be used but all also have some problems, particularly the last one, because each of us have our own idea about what is worth worrying about,” he said.

“I use a few different approaches, but the one I have settled on commonly is ‘no meaningful increase in risk’. That runs the risk of being interpreted as ‘not worth worrying about’, but when there is scope for discussion, most people find it helpful.”

Of course, if the risk is not low, he said this needs to be made very clear and, wherever possible, the risk should be controlled so that it is low.

Driscoll also said there are several challenges faced by organisations in terms of understanding risk and with helping others (such as workers or the public) to understand risks they might face in the course of their work.

Focussing particularly on illness, he said many organisations appear concerned that to admit there is a “risk” of harm they might “unnecessarily” worry their employees, or might open the organisation to claims for compensation.

“In some situations, it can be hard to gain a good understanding of the risks. Many people don’t understand the difference between relative risk and absolute risk. Many don’t understand the difference between hazard and risk, or how risk varies with level of exposure,” he said.

“People understandably don’t want to face extra risk of something bad happening if they can avoid it; they commonly want to be reassured there is no extra risk arising from the particular work activity or exposure they might be concerned about.”

So, Driscoll said there can be a tendency for organisations to downplay risks, or to say there is “zero” risk.

Instead, a key concept is that in most situations the only way to have no risk is to have no exposure. In contrast, he said organisations can sometimes inadvertently create worry and anxiety in workers (or the public) by being overly cautious, of highlighting a hazard for which the risk of illness is extremely low.

“This runs the risk of creating ill health by making people anxious. The recent issue of asbestos contaminating garden mulch is a good example of that,” he said.

“For the general public who spent time in parks or gardens, essentially all of them would have had a very, very low risk of being exposed to airborne asbestos fibres, and so their risk of any asbestos-related disease as a result would be very, very low,” said Driscoll, who added that the risk was perhaps not zero, but very close to it.