What Does It Mean to Mitigate Risk?
The term “mitigate risk” and “risk mitigation” is slightly misleading. This is because the meaning of the term “risk” changes depending on the context in which it is used.
Confusion also exists because different safety experts have different understandings of what “risk” means.
Risk can mean:
- The composite likelihood and severity of something happening, as in “The risk of…”;
- A specific occurrence that is bad/undesirable, as in a “risk occurrence.”
So, does risk mitigation mean lessening likelihood/severity or mitigating a specific risk occurrence? In fact, it can and often does mean both at the same time. Risk mitigation can mean either:
- Reducing the likelihood of a hazard occurrence, and the severity of the most likely risk associated with the hazard; and
- Reducing likelihood and severity of a risk occurrence after a hazard occurrence.
A better term is probably “mitigate exposure,” because it encompasses both hazard occurrence and risk occurrence. Here are the 5 risk mitigation strategies in aviation safety management systems (or, to mitigate exposure!).
1 – Reduce Likelihood/Severity
Reducing risk likelihood and/or severity involves either:
- (passive) Keeping a particular action, behavior, procedure, task, etc., to a minimum; or
- (active) Implementing actions that actively reduce risk.
It is the most common method used to mitigate risk in aviation safety management systems. Risk reduction happens by either:
- Reducing the severity of likely risk occurrences; and or
- Reducing the likelihood that the hazard will occur AND/OR if the hazard occurs, the likelihood that it will lead to a risk occurrence.
Pros of risk avoidance:
- Offers solution for risks that are impossible to avoid;
- Allows you to gain some “control” over complex situations; and
- Requires that you thoroughly analyze and understand your operations.
Cons of risk avoidance:
- Will need ongoing risk control monitoring to verify that mitigation technique remains effective;
- Can be hard to test mitigation effort’s effectiveness before implementation (effectiveness is often largely “theoretical” until implemented in an operational environment); and
- No assurance that risk avoidance will actually work, so can be an “expensive” use of resources to create and implement.
2 – Avoid Risk
Risk avoidance is a strategy that is very common in aviation SMS programs. It is probably preferable where applicable and convenient.
Risk avoidance simply entails limited or non-participation in activities that could lead to a particular potential hazard or risk occurrence. Where possible, it is the best method to mitigate risk in aviation safety management systems.
Pros of risk avoidance:
- Extremely effective in completing removing potential problem from aviation SMS; and
- Offers a high degree of assurance of reduced exposure.
Cons of risk avoidance:
- Many hazards and risk (occurrences) simply cannot be avoided;
- Often not practical method of mitigation; and
- Avoiding hazards/risk occurrences can impact the efficiency of operations.
This type of mitigation can only be used if there are multiple ways of completing a task or mission. In other words, if one type of activity used to complete a mission exposes you to a hazard/risk, then risk avoidance can be used to do a different activity that completed the task/mission but does not expose you to the hazard/risk.
Related Aviation SMS Risk Mitigation Articles
- What Is Risk Mitigation in Aviation SMS
- SMS Chart: Where to Focus Hazard Identification Training & Risk Mitigation
- Risk Mitigation Best Practices in Aviation Safety Management
3 – Transfer Risk to Another Party
Risks need to be “owned” by either you or another party. What ownership means is that, for a particular risk, the owner is first in line for making sure something bad doesn’t happen.
One way to mitigate risks in your operational environment is to transfer a risk to another, more capable party, such as one of your vendors. For example, one common real-world scenario is for aviation service providers to transfer certain risks to:
- Parts providers; or
- Maintenance crew.
The reason for this is that the other parties are better subject-matter experts than the service provider in the particular area that the risk imposes. Furthermore, it makes sense that the party who has direct oversight over a risk should be responsible for it.
Pros of risk transfer:
- Let subject-matter experts be the primary manager of relevant risks;
- Focus on risks that your company only has direct oversight over; and
- Free up manpower and resources to focus on the most relevant risks to the company.
Cons of risk transfer:
- Transferring exposure to a party that may or may not be reliable;
- May introduce further risk that is unaccounted for if the party is unreliable; and
- Many risks fall into the gray area of responsibility, and “transfer” is simply not an option.
4 – Distribute Risk Factors among Company
Risk distribution or segregation is a fantastic best practice to mitigate risk in aviation safety management systems.
It simply involves distributing hazards mechanisms into separate locations, roles/duties, or barriers. Most commonly, risk distribution involves breaking risks up into different locations. For example, some real-world examples of risk segregation are:
- Storing fuel in specially reinforced containers (segregating barrier of “container” into “container” and “reinforced material”);
- Having security based SMS software (segregating information based on role in company);
- Keeping backup servers in an off-site location (segregating location of primary and backup servers); or
- Keeping fuel storage away from combustible machinery (segregate chemicals and fire sources).
Pros of risk distribution:
- Easy way to drastically reduce likelihood/severity of risks;
- Easy to control; and
- Many opportunities to use this type of strategy.
Cons of risk distribution:
- Can be very expensive to implement in established operations that did not have the forethought to plan ahead of time when designing operations;
- Can involve significant changes to existing operations (locations, processes, parts, etc.).
The mantra here is don’t put all of your eggs in one basket – i.e., try and move each risk out of one responsibility, one location, one risk control, etc.
To properly mitigate risk through any of the above methods, you need to have a very solid understanding of central risk management terms and topics. Take this quiz to assess your knowledge and learn:
Last updated December 2022.