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Lessons in safety.- June 22

04 July 2022

It's time to encourage HSE professionals to take a different view of risk, says David Towlson.

RISK MANAGEMENT. As health and safety professionals, it’s a phrase we are all familiar with – on a recent Google search of the term, the Health and Safety Executive website features high on the list of results which perhaps indicates just how intertwined risk and health and safety is. 

Yet, as important as our profession is, there is so much more to risk. In the corporate world, risk management spreads beyond health and safety to quality, finance, supply chain, environment, reputation and so on. 

It presents a great opportunity for us to use our risk management skills in other areas and influence the approach of the whole organisation and its people beyond a health and safety context. There is much about the wider risk management discipline that you’ll be familiar with. For example, risks can emerge, change, or disappear, the importance of communication, the role of culture etcetera, etcetera. 

There is also so much opportunity for us to learn and develop by exploring risk management in its wider sense. Earlier in my health and safety career, I had a narrower field of view around risk but, for me, being introduced to quality management and wider business risk management was a moment of great realisation. Within these fields risk was seen as being more neutral. It was more about the effects of uncertainty, so it could be positive (an opportunity) or negative (a threat). This really changed my appreciation of what risk is.

Fundamental to anyone’s attitude to risk are what are called ‘risk appetite’ and ‘risk tolerance’. Risk appetite is about the degree of uncertainty organisations or individuals are willing to accept in anticipation of a reward. In other words, it’s your normal ‘comfort zone’ around risk. Risk tolerance is about how far you are prepared to go outside your risk appetite. It can cause discomfort, which we may be willing to endure temporarily, until we bring it back to our comfort zone. 

A great teacher

Risk management is a great teacher; we can’t and don’t know everything, and we must live with some uncertainty when making risk management decisions. It is easy to see the past actions of others as being reckless, when in reality this may not have been so. Judging people by what we know after an event is known as hindsight bias. We should accept that not everything is within our realm of control, and that not all things are foreseeable.

In fact, a positive risk management culture is not all about avoiding risk. Not taking risks means missing opportunities to grow. The British Standards Institution (BSI) and Cranfield University developed a useful approach to organisational resilience (Organisational Resilience: A summary of academic evidence, business insights and new thinking by BSI and Cranfield School of Management 2017). Using this could help you assess lots of things about your own organisation and how it responds to change and challenges. 

I’ve only scratched the surface of risk management in this column however NEBOSH and IIRSM have partnered to develop a new qualification – the NEBOSH IIRSM Certificate in Managing Risk. Initially available to study online only via a selection of NEBOSH’s global Learning Partners, eLearning gives learners the flexibility to study at a time and place to suit them. Successful learners will also be eligible for discounted IIRSM membership. 

David Towlson is NEBOSH director of learning & assessment. For more information, visit www.nebosh.org.uk/iirsmrisk