A chance in a million

How often do we hear a serious injury or fatality described as ‘a chance in million’, or hear journalists call it ‘a freak accident’?

Serious accidents are very rare, but their origins are deep-seated in our workplaces: sooner or later, a serious injury or fatality will occur due to an inherent hazard in the work environment. Does this mean that they are inevitable, unpreventable? Of course not!

The problem is twofold. Firstly, the idea of a ‘freak accident’ or a ‘one in a million chance’ essentially suggests that we are incapable of preventing the event that injures or kills: this is wrong. Secondly, there is a matrix-based risk analysis activity in health and safety that too often dismisses very low probability events as worthy of only minor consideration; while being seen to prevent the more frequent (and usually less consequential) events provides a more obvious demonstration of positive activity.

The matrix misleads

Work is almost always a repetitive business involving the manipulation of energy sources. Whether you’re producing widgets on a machine, driving a forklift across the shop floor, driving a farm vehicle, or undertaking repeated stressful transactions – the activity is virtually the same every time. Sometimes staff perform the same task hundreds or thousands of times a day; a million identical activities can come around very quickly. A possible event of ‘high consequence’ (a fatality or serious injury) is often unconsciously marginalised through a determination of ‘low probability’.

Many businesses use a ‘probability versus consequence’ matrix to plot their risk profiles. Even with the traffic light colours and numerical scores to make them look scientific, these matrices are retrospective guesswork at best, and at worst, exercises in futility. Despite their earnest but futile attempts to balance probability and severity, their use almost always focuses more on probability and ends up highlighting the most frequent and trivial risks. (This is often what drives people mad and gives safety a bad name.)

Focus on the hazard

The problem lies in the confusion between ‘risk’ and ‘hazard’. A properly identified hazard is an actual thing in the workplace such as a moving mass and force like a forklift, a chemical capable of injuring a body, a mass and potential force like an overhead load, or a psychosocial event like ongoing bullying.

Once we’ve identified the severity of these highly consequential hazards, we can then move to deal with them – because sooner or later, even after a million incidents where the hazard might not have manifested itself in a serious injury, someone will be simply doing their job and the ‘freak accident’ will definitely occur.

Risk analysis? You can play with the colourful matrices and percentages all you like, but ultimately, for serious accidents, the analysis is virtually pointless: eventually the hazard capable of killing or seriously injuring someone will definitely occur. It might be the first time staff walk near the hazardous event – or it might be the millionth – but it will happen. So wouldn’t you be better to focus on the hazard rather than the risk (probability) that a serious accident might happen?

Hierarchy of controls

Focusing on the hazard involves working at the high end of the safety hierarchy of controls – eliminating the hazard, or if that is impossible, isolating the hazard from our people, or our people from the hazard – thereby removing the possibility of a ‘chance in a million’ or the ‘freak accident’.

When we focus on risk analysis, we are focusing on the chance of staff suffering an injury by their presence when the hazard is at its most damaging: our focus is on the person – not the hazard.

In the context of workplace safety, focusing on the person inevitably draws us to the lower end of the hierarchy of controls for accident prevention: rules, training, personal protective equipment, the use of warning signs – all low-end, relatively ineffective means of preventing serious accidents; whereas focusing on the hazard takes us to the proven techniques of effective prevention.

Raising our sights

Everyone versed in the vocabulary of safety uses the term ‘hierarchy of controls’, but too often they quickly slip down the hierarchy into attempting to manage people’s behaviour to avoid an accident – rather than dealing to the hazard which will inevitably produce that accident.

We need to lift our sights to the higher levels of the hierarchy to prevent the ‘chance in a million’.

Steve Young is the Tertiary Lead on the NZISM senior leadership team. His PhD is entitled ‘Understanding and Efficacy of the Safety Hierarchy of Controls’.


Steve Young suggests the widely used colour-coded risk matrix encourages us to focus on the probable risks while glossing over the improbable (but, one day, inevitable and fatal) risks. Should we abandon the matrix? Agree or disagree here and go in the draw to win a prize!