The Risk of Ignoring Low Risks Following Assessments

The Risk of Ignoring Low Risks Following Assessments

By | April 26, 2017

It’s a common theme in films where near the end of the movie the protagonist realizes everything he or she thought to be true was actually false. Just think about the big reveal in M. Night Shyamalan’s film “The Sixth Sense” as an example. The same can hold true in the world of risk assessment.

Sometimes what’s thought to be a low-risk situation can turn out to be a high-risk one.

How could that be? There are several things that could come into play to reveal that, with a “low” risk, things are not always as they seem.

Care needs to be taken to make sure that:

  1. 1) The study team is composed of the right personnel, and has access to the right information, to ensure that the quality of the initial assessment is good.
  2. 2) Follow-up work is undertaken to ensure that assumptions made during the risk assessment study are valid.

Set Yourself Up for Success

A quality process hazard analysis is only as good as the information available to the study team. There are three things companies need to do to prepare for a risk assessment.

  1. 1) The A-Team: Getting the right team in place to work with the trained and qualified facilitator to ensure things run smoothly and the risks are assessed correctly is paramount. It’s important to be prepared to be able answer any safeguard questions the risk assessor might have.
  2. 2) Stay With Me: Once a company has established that A-Team, it needs to dedicate the group to the entire study. Changing things up midstream can and will lead to inaccurate and inconsistent results, and will increase the time needed to complete the risk assessment.
  3. 3) Support your team: It doesn’t really matter whether you have paper records or electronic records. You just need to know where everything is and how to access it quickly. The supporting information also must be up-to-date. On a few assessments we have worked on, companies based their analysis on out-of-date piping and instrumentation diagrams. Guess what? It slowed down the process and doubled the amount of time it took to do the study. And, you can be sure that the assessment will not be as accurate or beneficial if it is based on out-of-date information.

Things Change

Even though the information you have used was correct at the time of the risk assessment, following our “Sixth Sense” analogy, perhaps something has changed and the company simply didn’t recognize or track the change. The difference, of course, is that the actors in movies can move on unscathed to their next part after the film is completed, while workers could find themselves seriously injured or killed if the big risk reveal comes too late.

Risks are assessed under the assumption that equipment is kept in good condition, maintenance is performed as mandated by equipment suppliers and reliability teams, and that a whole range of testing and training is executed in a formalized manner. But, there are countless situations where the regular maintenance assumed to have occurred during the risk assessment review never took place for a key safeguard. Maybe a spare part was never ordered or replaced, even though it was thought to be on hand. Maybe there was a miscommunication or lack of communication between different departments. The list goes on and on. Assumptions are just that—assumptions—and it is very important to validate these on a regular basis. Otherwise, the risks you have identified during your original assessment may be underestimated.

It’s no different than what happens with your yearly furnace maintenance. Say you have your contractor come out to inspect your unit in the early fall and everything checks out fine. For months afterward your heater works great and keeps everyone warm and toasty. Then a surprise arctic chill comes in early spring and your furnace gives up the ghost. What happened? The furnace checked out and everything was fine, right? Sure, but what if you forgot to change the filter all winter and your furnace overheated?

The variables have changed. When the maintenance was done, the filter was new and everything was working well so there was a low risk that the furnace would break down. Some five months later, the risk was elevated unbeknownst to the homeowner because that same filter had been gathering dust for months.

The same holds true with an assessment. The risk might have been low at the time of the study, but 18 months later a regular maintenance step might have been missed along the way that elevates the risk to a much higher level.

Many companies make the mistake of assuming a low risk will remain a low risk. Sometimes it will; sometimes it won’t.

That’s why solid communication, taking a proactive approach to maintenance and recognizing problems or potential problems early is imperative to ensure low risks stay that way.

Being prepared for a study and being proactive afterward can help keep those low risks low and, like the hero in your favorite film, your company will become one of the good guys who comes out on top in the end.

Your company is always ready for a risk assessment, please contact us for more information.

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Sphera is the leading provider of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) performance and risk management software, data and consulting services with a focus on Environment, Health, Safety & Sustainability (EHS&S), Operational Risk Management and Product Stewardship.
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