Most Common Misunderstanding in Aviation Risk Management
We run across this time and time again in aviation risk management programs: safety management confuses hazards and risks, and consequently also confuses risks and consequences.
To be frank, misunderstanding the difference between these three things can have far reaching repercussions in your ability to practice risk management in your aviation safety management system.
These repercussions happen when safety management either:
- Uses hazards and risks interchangeably as the same thing, either when discussing them or using them for managing risks; or
- Confuses a risk with a consequence of the risk.
Here are several problems we often see that commonly arise when hazards, risks, and consequences are misinterpreted:
- Created risk controls will not address the most immediate risks;
- Change management will simply be more error prone and riskier;
- Bowtie analysis will all but worthless; and
- Potential for risk management will be significantly stunted.
Why Aviation Risk Management Depends on Knowing the Difference
The reason it’s so important to know the difference between hazards, risks, and consequences, and apply each item accurately as you practice risk management, is the following fact:
- Hazards are only as useful as your ability to understand the relevant relationships between them and the specific dangers they pose to your organization.
In other words, if you know the hazards, but don’t correctly know the risky situations that arise from them, then you will be misguided in what you ward against (i.e. misplaced risk controls). For risk management to be successful in safety management systems, safety management needs to understand the clear distinctions between these three things.
Having clear distinctions will render risk management programs organized with clear boundaries for how to assess different aspects of safety events – in short, good safety management.
What is a Hazard in Risk Management?
A hazard is a thing (or lack of it), such a physical object, environmental variable, or a state of being that causes or leads to problems. And it’s very important to note that all hazards are a static thing and NOT a specific situation that requires immediate reaction. Another way to distinguish a hazard is that it is something has the potential to be dangerous depending on one’s interaction with it, but in and of itself it not dangerous.
Keeping this is mind will help distinguish what the difference is between hazards and risks in aviation SMS programs.
Most examples are fairly straightforward. Here are a few to illustrate what a hazard is:
- A mountain: which can be crashed into, require emergency maneuvers, have associated weather problems, etc.;
- Incorrect procedure: which can lead to any number of dangerous situations;
- Wildlife: like a mountain, they can interfere with flight and ground operations, leading to near damage and death;
- Stresses (such as divorce): a state of being which can lead to distraction, self-destructive behaviors, etc.
- Lack of communication: which easily leads to any number of dangerous situations;
- Employee Turnover: new employees are a hazard becomes they have a potential for things like incorrect use of machinery or software, being unaware of impending problems, etc.
There are hundreds of potential hazards, but the one thing they all have in common is that they lead to problems, but in and of themselves are harmless.
What is a Risk?
A risk is a dangerous situation that arises from hazards, is the point at which safety is lost, and requires immediate reaction (which a risk control) or else face consequences. They are much different from hazards in that risk are inherently – well – risky. Without direct intervention, risk are dangerous and will lead to any number of consequences.
This is an important point because often people will confuse a risk and a consequence. Remember that a risk is the point at which “safety is lost” and NOT “damage is done.” Where most people get confused about risks and consequences when they associated the Type of Issue, such as “bird strike”, with the risk. A risk is something you can react to and mitigate, but a consequence cannot be reacted to – it already happened. Here are some example of risk and how they differ from a consequences:
- Flying too close to a mountain – and not crashing into the mountain – is a risk. Flying too close to a mountain is a risk because it will require direct reaction on the part of a pilot to regain safety,
- Bird near aircraft – and not bird strike – is a risk because pilots will have to take immediate action (slowing down) to regain safety. Here’s a fantastic PDF that uses Bowtie to illustrate hazards, risk, and consequences of bird strikes;
- Runway incursion (resulting from lack of communication) is a risk that can have severe consciences if pilots don’t take immediate action (such as aborted landing/takeoff).
What is a Consequence in Risk Management?
Consequences are the repercussions of a situation, and characterized by damages, be it financial loss, loss of life, damage to equipment, etc. For example:
- A consequence of Flying Close to Mountain could be a crash, injured passengers due to an evasive maneuver, or damage to the aircraft;
- A consequence of Bird Near Aircraft could be damage to hull, damage to or loss of engine(s), damage to windshield, etc.
- A consequence of runway incursion could be damage to vehicle/aircraft, loss of life, company’s reputation, and so on.
Remember, the important thing to note about these examples is that they clearly show different ways that damage is done. Consequences necessarily involve damages that can no longer be avoided. As said, this is different from risks, in which damage can be avoided.
Summary of Differences and 3 Questions to Tell the Difference
Here’s brief summary of each item:
- Hazard: a thing that is harmless by itself, but can lead to safety events depending on one’s interaction with it.
- Risk: a situation in which safety is lost and which requires immediate reaction to avoid or mitigate potential consequences.
- Consequence: the damage(s) done.
Here are three great questions that can help you clearly decide whether something is a hazard or a risk, or a risk or a consequence:
- If you don’t immediately react to it, is there a good possibility that you will face serious consequences? If yes, most likely it’s a risk; if no, most likely it’s a hazard.
- Can someone’s actions affect the outcome of this situation? If yes, most likely it’s a risk; if no, most likely it’s a consequence.
- Is this (1) a thing/state of being, a (2) situation requiring immediate reaction, or (3) some hind of harm? One is a hazard, two is a risk, and three is a consequence.