SMS Pro Aviation Safety Software Blog 4 Airlines & Airports

How to Distinguish Hazard vs Risk Occurrence

Posted by Tyler Britton on Apr 12, 2018 5:57:00 AM

Why Identifying Difference Between Hazards and Risks Matters

How to Distinguish Hazard Occurrence from Risk OccurrenceOne of biggest problems in aviation risk management is the misuse or misunderstanding of aviation risk management definitions and concepts. The most common mistakes happen when it comes to the idea of a hazard vs risk.

Often, these two items are either:

  • Used interchangeably, as if they were the same thing;
  • Misidentified, where a safety manager misidentifies a risk occurrence as a hazard occurrence; or
  • The terms are used much too broadly.

Accuracy is very important. Many of your risk management tools and activities depend on basic definitions of these elements. Misidentification can compromise how safety is accounted for and documented.

The implication here is that with incorrect understanding of hazards and risks, incorrect real-world identification is bound to follow.

What is a Hazard

Knowing what a hazard is involves identifying the central point of a safety issue. Hazard identification is central to data collection, as well as the entire process of developing safe operational environments.

A hazard fulfills ALL of the following criteria:

  • Is a dangerous condition, such as a situation, behavior, object, etc., that poses an unacceptable level of danger;
  • Occurs once in life cycle of safety mishaps – it is the center point of safety mishaps;
  • Can lead directly to risk occurrences, such as safety mishaps, if not mitigated; and
  • Arises from hazard mechanisms, such as root causes, initiating actions, and hazardous sources.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines a hazard as, “A condition that could foreseeably cause or contribute to an aircraft accident…” (14 CFR § 5.5). Other compliance agencies have similarly worded definitions for hazards, and all of them fulfill the above bullet points.

How Hazards are Often Misidentified

Hazards are most often mistaken as:

  1. A benign object, such as a bird or mountain, that poses no inherent threat;
  2. A safety mishap, which is also called a risk occurrence; or
  3. Damages, which are a product of a safety mishap.

While benign objects are not inherently dangerous, they can become hazards in the right context. For example, a building is not a hazard. But a tall building in proximity to the flight path is a hazard.

What is a Risk

The concept of “Risk” is where things get most confusing, as there are two ways the word can be used. Like hazards, context matters.

You can use the word risk in the contexts of:

  • Risk in general: the composite of predicted severity and likelihood of the potential effect of a hazard (14 CFR § 5.5); and
  • A risk occurrence: a safety mishap, accident, incident, damage, etc.

The key marker of a specific risk occurrence is damages. If you are discussing a particular negative outcome in a safety issue, you are talking about a specific risk.

Risk (in general) is generally documented and quantifying risk with a risk matrix. Quantifying risk involves:

  • The severity of most likely outcome – i.e., severity of most likely risk occurrence; and
  • The likelihood of the most likely outcome occurring – i.e., chances of most likely risk occurrence happening.

When we are talking about “a risk” or “risk identification”, we are talking about a risk occurrence.

Relationship Between Hazard and Risk Occurrence

Hazard occurrence may or may not result in risk occurrence.

There are many other contributing factors that bridge the gap between hazards and risk occurrence, such as:

Hazard occurrence can result in risk occurrence very quickly, such as a matter of minutes. Hazard occurrence can also result in risk occurrence over the course of a long time. It simply depends on the situation.

You should understand relevant hazards and risks in your aviation SMS programs through the lens of the above points.

A hazard will have a very hard time resulting in risk occurrence given:

  • Well-developed risk controls;
  • Well trained personnel; and
  • Good aviation safety culture for reacting to exposure.

Let’s also not forget that there is an element of luck in risk avoidance. That being said, SMS programs that prepare employees and the operational environment well should be able to avoid a vast majority of risk occurrences.

How to Identify Hazard Occurrence from Risk Occurrence

Being able to identify hazard vs risk occurrence while managing a safety issue simply involves having a good understanding of:

  • The criteria for risk occurrence; and
  • The criteria for hazard occurrence.

Then it’s simply a matter of lining out each step of the issue, and identifying which step best fits the criteria for a hazard and which step best fits the criteria for a risk occurrence. Of course, not all issues have a hazard or risk occurrence.

How to Train Employees on Difference

Guidance for hazard identification and risk occurrence identification does not have to be complicated. In fact, the more straightforward the guidance, the better.

Some good practices for providing hazard reporting guidance are:

  1. Provide lots of hazard identification training;
  2. Assess hazard identification knowledge;
  3. Have a very simple hazard reporting process (a stranger should be able to do it); and
  4. Have a chart of preferred types of issues to report.

Following these guidelines are a fantastic way to ensure that employees recognize what to report, and know how to report it.


For more resources on hazards vs risks, the following resources should prove very helpful:

Download hazard reporting poster for best reporting practices in aviation SMS


Download Issue Life Cycle Analysis Tool


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Topics: 3-Safety Assurance

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