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Are risk and hazard synonyms? When does a hazard become a risk?How to minimize and avoid risks?
These two terms are often used to describe the same or similar things, but this isn’t entirely accurate as risk and hazard relate to very distinct concepts. Not all hazards represent a risk, it is exposure which makes all the difference.
A hazard can cause an adverse effect to property, people or the environment. A hazardous object has a built-in ability to cause harm, for example if a person walks down an icy road, the icy road is a hazard. Other examples may include uneven pavements, machinery, noise, or wild animals which are hazardous but, depending on the circumstances, do not necessarily represent any risk. When preventive measures are taken, such as using the right shoes or having the right pressure on our tires, risks can be minimized or completely avoided.
Exposure is a necessary condition for a hazard to become a risk. The more humans or the environment are exposed to a hazardous object/situation, the higher the potential risk there is that they will be harmed. For example, a tree being blown down in a storm is a hazard and it could destroy buildings and vehicles but it would only become a risk for humans if there is someone standing on its way or nearby. How frequently, or how close someone is exposed to a hazard will increase or decrease the potential risks.
The concept of risk can be simply captured in the equation: “Risk = Hazard x Exposure”. For a hazardous object or situation to become a risk, there must be exposure. For example, a wild and dangerous animal will always represent a hazard, but as long as it remains properly caged it will never represent a risk. As exposure increases, so does the likelihood of harm, and therefore the risk will be higher.
We live surrounded by hazards and therefore, constantly perform risk assessment to take our decisions. While deciding when to cross the road, whether to eat healthy or how we drive our car, we are assessing the potential hazards and the risks they actually represent, normally trying to minimise any potential to be harmed.
“All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” Paracelsus (1493 –1541)
The fact that a chemical is deemed to be a hazard does not necessarily mean there is a risk. The chemical’s built-in ability to bring about harm classifies it as hazardous, however, if it is handled safely and under controlled conditions, it is safe for use in appropriate applications. Frequency and amount are two important elements to consider when determining the level of risk derived from exposure to a particular substance.
Risk assessments are scientific analysis to determine the level of exposure to a hazard and attempt to give accurate levels of potential harm to human health and the environment.