What’s the Difference Between a Hazard and a Risk?

Theres a difference between a hazard and a risk, do you know what that is?

Though it may seem they’re synonyms, in the lexicon of occupational health and safety, hazard and risk are connected, but different, terms. A hazard is something that might cause harm to workers, such as chemicals, electrical cords, noise, improper keyboard positioning or working on top of a ladder. The risk refers to how great the chance is that someone will be harmed by the hazard.

Office settings appear to be safe, but in reality any workplace is fraught with potential hazards, many caused by ordinary, everyday things. For example, according to the National Fire Protection Association, damaged wires, plugs and extension cords caused nearly seven thousand fires and $116 million in property damage between 1994 and 1998. Here are some other office hazards that could put workers at high risk for harm:

  • Sprinkler heads blocked by furniture or other stacked items around it can significantly reduce the sprinkler’s effectiveness. Keep a clearing of at least 18 inches surrounding the sprinkler to ensure its full range of coverage.
  • Power cords that are damaged or ungrounded can mean electric shock or fire hazards. Don’t use worn cords or those with a damaged sheath or exposed wires.
  • An Emergency Action Plan can help employees safely evacuate the office in case of emergency. Not having a plan puts employees at risk should an emergency occur.
  • Fire doors left open are a fire hazard, as they serve as fire barriers separating spaces to prevent the spread of fire in buildings. Only doors that automatically release when fire alarms go off should be held open for long periods of time.
  • Space heaters used in offices should always be placed a good distance from combustible materials, have a tip-over switch that automatically turns it off if knocked over, and never be connected with extension cords.

In an industrial setting, the hazards are more obvious and prevalent, putting employees at high risk for injuries or health concerns. Chemical materials and noise are often the most common, but other issues such as repetitive stress injuries and ergonomic concerns can make an impact as well.

Experts recommend that managers of industrial workplaces conduct a thorough evaluation of the hazards by assessing or measuring their employees’ exposure and determining whether that risk is acceptable in that workplace. Once that is decided, it’s then up to management to control their employees’ exposure to hazards. Perhaps that might mean utilizing engineering controls like a local exhaust ventilation to cut down on harmful inhalants in a factory setting. It could also mean administrative controls improving employee training or housekeeping. A third possibility might be personal protective equipment like hearing, eye or head protection.

Naturally, the minimum requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) require compliance, but going the extra mile to ensure employee comfort and productivity is vital as well.

Sources: Congressional Office of Compliance, Occupational Hazards