Risk can have a serious impact. Like breathing, good risk management is crucial to the survival of an organisation and its people. Andrew Sharman looks at risk perception from a new angle, drawing parallels with classic approaches to respiratory protection.

Using Respiratory Protection as an Example

For centuries we have been fascinated with the human respiratory system. Royalty, philosophers, clerics, medics, farmers and scientists alike have all pondered its form, function and efficiency. Back in the 13th century, in what was regarded as the first scientific description of pulmonary circulation, physiologist Ibn Al-Nafis concluded that blood must pass through the pulmonary artery, then the lungs and into the heart before it can be pumped around the body.

In 1897 Gustav Killian pulled a pork bone from his farmer friend’s bronchus – a year before the first hospital bronchoscopy was performed. Dr James Hardy undertook the first human lung transplant in 1963 at the University of Mississippi Hospital and just 25 years later the first double lung transplant became a success. Since then we’ve hardly stopped for breath: experiments have been conducted to garner such important and diverse data from the speed of a human sneeze, the number of viruses that can cause a cold, to the amount of time we can survive without breathing.

The human respiratory system is a remarkable series of organs responsible for pulling in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide from the body. The primary organs – the lungs – conduct this gaseous exchange as we breathe. Red blood cells collect oxygen from the lungs and whisk it off to the various muscles and parts of the body where it’s required.

While they are there, they pick up carbon dioxide and bring it back to the lungs, and from here it’s expelled from our bodies when we exhale.

Alongside water, oxygen is an essential ingredient to sustain human life. A decrease in oxygen (hypoxia) or a complete lack of oxygen (anoxia) can be fatal. After just four short minutes without oxygen brain cells begin to die off, leading to brain damage and ultimately death.

Some of the most common hazards to the respiratory system include the lack of oxygen and the presence of harmful dusts, mists, fumes, gases, vapours, sprays or smoke. These can include substances that may cause adverse neurological effects, lung impairment and cancer.

There is a wealth of information available online now to help with the selection of respirators, so rather than replicate that, let’s have a quick tour through the main types before thinking about how the respiratory system can help us consider issues of risk within the workplace from a different angle.

The air we breathe

There are two main types of respirators. The first (and most common) is air purifying – designed to remove contaminants from the air. Air supplying respirators, as the name suggests, provide clean breathable air from an uncontaminated source. Typically the former are utilised for irritant and nuisance situations, and the latter for more hazardous exposures. Let’s look at three types of air purifying respirators first: particulate, gas masks and powered air-purifying.

Particulate respirators are the simplest and least expensive of the respirator types available, but they also offer the least protection – typically only providing protection against particles rather than chemicals, gases or vapours. Intended only for low hazard levels, the paper ‘dust mask’ is one type of particulate respirator, often used in hospitals to protect against infectious agents or to stop you sneezing when you’re cutting the grass on a hot sunny day. Particulate respirators are ‘air-purifying respirators’ as they work to clean particles from the air as you breathe.

Gas mask respirators filter or clean chemical gases and pollutants from the air as you breathe. They’re effective only when used with the correct cartridge or filter suited to a particular biological hazard or chemical substance. Choosing the right filter can be a complicated process, but your supplier will be on hand to advise. There are now filters available that protect against more than one hazard, but there is no “all-in-one” cartridge that protects against everything so it’s vital to know what hazards you will encounter in order to be sure that you choose the right filters or cartridges for your respirator.

Powered air-purifying respirators use a battery-powered fan system to draw air through a filter to the user. Easy to fit and use, they utilise similar filters and cartridges as other air-purifying respirators. It’s therefore crucial to understand what the hazard is and its concentration in the air in order to choose the appropriate filters or cartridges.

“Effectively managing risk is at the core of organisational success, no mater what industry sector we operate in”

And now to the air supplying type itself. Self-contained breathing apparatus is the respirator commonly used by firefighters, those facilitating emergency rescue and, as the initials suggest, scuba divers. They use their own air supply (usually from a tank mounted on the body) to provide clean air, so there’s no need for complicated filters. SCBA systems typically also protect against higher concentrations of dangerous chemicals. A downside, however, is that they can be cumbersome and heavy. As well as muscle power, workers will naturally require special training on how to use them.

Respirators do have their limitations and are of course not a substitute for effective engineering controls. Where your risk assessment deems that respirators are required to protect worker health and safety, specific actions are necessary to ensure their effectiveness. These actions will include, but may not be limited to, developing written procedures, training, respirator fit testing, medical evaluation and workplace surveillance 4 .

Talk like an Egyptian

The ancient Egyptians were smart. They recognised how vital cohesion of the respiratory system was for survival. Early hieroglyphs symbolising ‘unity’ literally featured a representation of the lungs attached to the windpipe. Taking a joined-up approach to risk management is good sense today: building unity and cohesion within the organisation and ensuring its survival. So let’s zoom out from respiratory risk now and take in the bigger picture.

Risk can have a serious impact on an organisation, its people and the communities in which it operates. How we identify and respond to risks will undoubtedly affect our organisational performance, including such safety aspects as a goal of reaching zero accidents. Our approach to risk will also affect how our organisations are viewed in the public eye. Effectively managing risk is therefore at the core of organisational success, no mater what industry sector we operate in. It’s also the cornerstone of our work in safety, too.

‘Risk’ really means anything that prevents us from meeting our objectives. It can be typically broken down into three types:

  • Operational risks – the risks that may impact our intended day-to-day activities (including safety)
  • Strategic risks – those risks that may impinge upon our planning and decision-making processes
  • Compliance risks – risks that may prevent us from meeting our governance and regulatory obligations

In simple terms, managing risk is a function of three critical components:

  • Probability – of a particular event occurring
  • Severity – of the consequence of the event
  • Exposure – to the opportunity of the event occurring

An easy way to express this is the formula: Risk = Probability x Severity x Exposure.

Each of the elements function individually as well as multiplicatively, so if we conclude that any one of probability, severity or exposure is zero, then overall the risk for that specific situation will disappear.

Assessing safety risks in the workplace is a tough challenge. Their breadth is one aspect – from the natural to technological, from physical to psychological. Within these themes, scales of tolerability – typically ranked in numbers or from ‘low’ to high’ – exist. With this wild diversity attempting to assess risks using one common approach is meaningless.

Putting it in perspective

We must be mindful that when it comes to matters of risk management, everything isn’t black and white: risk is all about perception. How probability, severity and exposure are viewed and assessed will depend upon the person’s own individual perspective and experience.

“Perceptions of risk can negatively impact the risk management process”

Within an organisational environment groups of individuals will naturally hold differing views on risk due to their own personal sensitivities. Some people may be concerned about practically all workplace hazards, whereas others may appear indifferent. This variation is caused by each individual’s cognitive consideration of risk perception (the probability of an accident) and the emotive aspect (how worried or safe they feel when they think about a particular risk).

Most people are naturally biased when it comes to assessing risk. We use ‘reference points’ anchored deep in our brains to compute the level of risk we believe we face. For example, one senior leader I worked with views all activities anywhere near the presence of asbestos as ‘super high risk’ and requires his employees to wear a respirator constantly when in these areas. It matters not to him that the workers are well trained on the hazards of asbestos, that they will not disturb the fibres or cause damage to the asbestos itself. Instead, his reference point is an event several years ago when some sub-contractors dismantled a store building that had asbestos panels on the roof. The panels broke as they landed in the skip, potentially releasing their fibres to the air. This event (and the subsequent regulatory enforcement intervention) resonated deeply with him and created such a strong anchor that he now views all asbestos with the same degree of risk.

Sharing risk perceptions

A strong safety culture consists of shared perceptions of risks related to safety and its management. This is a crucial point, as the level of risk perceived in any given task has the potential to alter the approach and level of safety management applied to it.

Perceptions of risk can negatively impact the risk management process. Let’s go back to the manager and the asbestos. His heightened sense of risk may on face value be seen as a good thing, but as you consider the scenario I describe above, could it perhaps be that he is over-reacting?

We should be aware that there’s a significant correlation between current accident rates and the perception of risk – both by workers and by leaders. Gradually reducing accident rates seem to foster a sense of comfort and confidence: as the numbers drop, so too does the perception of risk in the workplace.

It’s here we reach a tipping point, where confidence becomes over-confidence and leads to a false sense of security in the boardroom and encourages a perceived invincibility and short-cutting on the shop-floor.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s a culture of fear growing within our societies that encourages people to overestimate risk. It’s driven partly by the media who are seeking sensational headlines for television and newspapers and it’s amplified by the actions of common people who feel the need to wrap kids in cotton wool, remove overhead baskets of flowers from shopping streets for fear of them falling on someone’s head, and organisations stopping the weekly staff five-a-side football game fear of an accident occurring.

So why is a culture of fear growing in organisations around the globe when it comes to matters of safety? I suspect that it’s because we – the safety profession – don’t always sufficiently inform our leaders to allow them to be able to make appropriate decisions.

This lack of information fuels extreme reactions. Either the over confidence mentioned earlier or risk aversion. When you train people to be risk averse, you prepare the entire organisation to be reward-challenged.

“Risk management – like our respiratory system – is a continuous process for every organisation”

Managing reputations

Perhaps these extreme reactions are due to the pressure felt by organisations around their reputation. Risk impacts the continuing desire of customers in dealing with an organisation and ‘reputational risk’ has become an area of increasing importance to all organisations as the process of globalisation breaks down barriers to business. An organisation’s reputation can be damaged by things as diverse as: supply chain issues, such as child labour involved in the production of clothing; ethical issues, like bribery or corruption; and operational issues, such as poor safety performance and fatal accidents.

Supply chain issues damaged the reputation of one of the world’s biggest supermarkets recently, when horsemeat was found inside the store’s brand of beef burgers and other chilled meals. The result for the chain was a significant drop in chilled and frozen food sales, and a direct impact on the corporation’s share price wiping almost 300 million pounds from their value.

Recently organisational attitudes to risk have undergone a seismic shift, thanks to deep research, myriad models and theories, and major public events such as Texas City, Deepwater Horizon and Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. A change in the average corporate attitude – from risk aversion to a sense of balanced risk-taking – can thankfully now be observed in many commercial sectors. Despite this, there remains further opportunity for organisations to undertake a more strategic approach to managing risk in an integrated way.


Robust policies and procedures are essential if we are to embed risk management across the organisation, though we must go beyond formal frameworks and consider how we communicate on risk. Risk assessments are helpful, but the most effective risk management systems will be the ones where everyone within the organisation understands the risks in their operation, and what needs to be done to report and control them. This is becoming known as Enterprise Risk Management, or ERM, where all risks are viewed together in a single unified framework as opposed to separate viewpoints for each risk type. Having safety integrated in an ERM framework is good news for us as practitioners, as it brings us closer to the core of the organisation’s thought processes and decision-making and moves us away from the traditional view of safety as a ‘bolt-on’ or remote service provision.

Risk management – like our respiratory system – is a continuous process for every organisation. Simplicity and clarity of approach are central to effective risk management and control. The answer is not more paperwork, but indeed more effective dialogue, conversation and communication that allows our organisations’ leaders and workers to embrace and risk and breathe a breath of fresh air into managing it appropriately.

Published: 15th Feb 2016 in Health and Safety International