In this paper, Certified Industrial Hygienist, Ronald D. Schaible, presents an overview of what risk is, its relationship to hazards, and how it can be assessed and used to make intelligent business decisions. He also discusses how risk may be perceived by employers, workers, and those that help decide matters involving litigation – jurors.

Perception of Risk – Employer, Worker, and Juror Perspectives

Presented on May 7, 2006

At WILG’s Annual Conference & CLE

Litigation commonly involves incidents affecting workers who suffer injury due to hazards in the workplace. This is especially true in those states that have created a legislative standard for loss of tort immunity (i.e., “deliberate intent”).This paper presents an overview of what risk is, its relationship to hazards, how it can be assessed and used to make intelligent business decisions, and how risk may be perceived by employers, workers, and those that help decide matters involving litigation – jurors.


The world is a dangerous place in which to live. This, despite the fact that advances in science and medicine have eradicated many diseases. Food safety has improved. Environmental measures have resulted, in some cases, in cleaner water being discharged into surface and ground waters than the water that was processed by the companies to make their products.

Yet new risks have arisen in the technical and information age. Consider the risks associated with nanotechnology, nuclear energy, hazardous wastes, irradiated food, artificial sweeteners, air pollution, terrorism, and sexually transmitted diseases. All have risks associated with them. However, not everyone has the same perception of those risks. How one perceives risk is a decision made within the context of one’s own life. It is the issue of risk, and the perception of risk by employers, workers, and jurors, that affects work place safety and workers compensation insurance claims.

What Is Risk?

A discussion of risk is best prefaced with a few useful definitions:

  • Harm: Physical injury or damage to health of people. Note: This may be a result of direct interaction with the [machine] or indirectly as a result of damage to property or to the environment.
  • Hazard: A potential source of harm.
  • Protective measures: Design, safeguards and complementary protective devices, administrative controls, warnings, work procedures, training or personal protective equipment used to eliminate hazards or reduce risks.
  • Residual risk: Risk remaining after protective measures have been taken.
  • Risk: A combination of the probability of the occurrence of harm and the severity of that harm.
  • Risk assessment: The process by which the intended use of the machine, tasks and hazards, and the level of risk are determined.
  • Tolerable risk: Risk that is accepted for a given task and hazard combination [hazardous situation].

Within the context of occupational safety and health, occurrences of harm stem from hazard exposure experienced in the workplace. These exposures include inhalation of or contact with hazardous chemicals, unguarded machinery, fire and explosion situations, and so forth. Therefore, a more comprehensive definition of risk could be “the measure of the probability that exposure to a hazard will result in a negative consequence.” Risks are acceptable if they are judged to be tolerable (“acceptable risk”). Minimum risk is achieved when all risks deriving from hazards are at a realistic minimum. Minimum risk does not mean zero risk, which may not be attainable. Safety is defined as that state for which the risks are judged to be acceptable.

Risk Assessment Decision Matrix

Manuele provides guidance on establishing hazard categories as a starting point for evaluating risk. This framework can be used in any situation where death, system loss, or property, equipment or environmental damage is a concern. These categories require understanding the particular product or process being evaluated, and what the terms mean to an individual operation. Consider the following definitions of categories of hazard severity suggested by Manuele:

Second, one must establish criteria for defining hazard probability. The word “probability” implies a quantitative determination of likelihood. Unlike the chemical process industry, where published statistical failure data based on historical operational data and research data is available, many times quantitative probabilities are not available. Typically, a consensus of subjective, professional opinions of knowledgeable persons is used. Consider the following qualitative definitions of hazard probability rankings suggested by Manuele:

Using the above definitions helps establish a basic matrix to develop qualitative assessments of risk as to establish priorities.

If risk analyses and risk assessments are to be effectively made, those responsible for conducting assessments must be skilled in the use of the special analytical techniques that are available. There are over 25 hazard analysis techniques and each has its advantages and limitations. The techniques most applicable to the chemical process industry are discussed in OSHA’s Process Safety Management regulation, 29 CFR 1910.119. The most common assessment and analysis methodologies include Checklists, Fault Tree, What IF Technique, Hazard and Operability Study (HAZOP), Failure Modes and Effect Analysis (FMEA), and Management Oversight and Risk Tree (MORT).

Implications for Employers

All risk is derived from hazards. Therefore, hazards must be the focus of design efforts to achieve a state for which the risks are judged to be acceptable. In determining minimum risk, design objectives and the practicality of risk reduction measures and their costs, and their probable acceptance by users, will be decision factors.

Management has the primary responsibility to provide a safe and healthful work place under the General Duty Clause of OSHA. Proper systems and processes should be in place to accomplish this goal. Such processes include:

  • Performing competent hazard analyses;
  • Implementing appropriate hazard control programs and measures;
  • Providing necessary monitoring and feedback of those systems and procedures;
  • Conducting effective injury investigations to determine the root cause of accidents; and
  • Ensuring that appropriate correct actions are taken in a timely and proper manner and ensuring that the corrective actions loop back to the hazard analysis.

A competent workplace hazard analysis considers and evaluates the foreseeable and predictable uses and misuses of machines, tools, and equipment on people, property and the environment. However, issues that involve workers are sometimes neglected. These issues are perception of risk, hazard assessment, the role of proper training (not just training for the sake of fulfilling a requirement), acknowledging and compensating for bad habits, lapses, mistakes and forgetfulness, and unrealistic or perhaps even unsafe demands by supervisors.

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Featured Expert

Ronald D. Schaible, CIH, CSP, CPE

Ron has over 35 years of health, safety, ergonomics/human factors, indoor air quality, and environmental experience. He is a Certified Industrial Hygienist, Certified Safety Professional, Certified Human Factors Professional/Ergonomist, and a Registered Professional Safety Engineer (Mass.).