Removing Bias in your Risk Assessment for a Healthier Chemical Footprint

For Health and Safety Professionals a risk assessment is a process where you:

  • identify all hazards at your work-site – this includes chemical hazards
  • evaluate the likelihood that a hazard can cause harm
  • determine who might be harmed
  • determine corrective actions so the hazard will not cause harm or minimize that harm
  • prioritize hazards and control measures

Your risk assessment should strive to be as objective as possible. Subjective is the opposite of objective and subjective bias naturally creeps in when humans perform assessments. Subjective means based on or influenced by your personal feelings, tastes or opinions. Personal opinions can influence the outcome. Unfortunately, if you are dealing with a Kidney Toxin your kidney does not care about various personal opinions.

Some other issues can affect the objectiveness of the decision process.  Confirmation Bias is when people will look for information that support their opinion and ignore others; this leads to bad decisions.  When Confirmation Bias and Subjectivity are combined, it can lead to risk assessments that may overlook long term health effects of chemical exposure. Unfortunately, by the time people develop illness they are too sick and beyond repair.  For instance, if someone thinks a specific solvent will not harm them even though the data sheets state clearly it is hazardous, they are exhibiting their personal feeling perhaps because they have worked with it for a long time and they feel fine. Maybe it’s a product they like to use or it’s cost effective. Since people appear fine this reinforces the confirmation bias.

Most hazard & risk assessments don’t have true experts doing the assessment or available to advise.  If process safety implications exist. Will an engineer be available to categorize the hazards into risks?  How about a toxicologist? Or an ergonomist?  Since these highly skilled people are not part of the discussion process these issues are often under or overestimated based on subjective opinions and confirmation biases.

The sad part is that a worker’s health bears the brunt of the risk. Usually people do not have the skills to address all the hazards in a knowledgeable way and how these hazards could cause harm. All hazards including chemical hazards need to be considered and this means more than just reading a SDS.  Safer chemicals or less toxic chemicals should be considered. Using an objective hazard ranking method is the best method to select safer chemicals.

To do an objective hazard ranking, begin with a complete chemical inventory. List all the chemicals at the site, identify and rank the hazards.  Select different products capable of performing the same task and compare their hazard ranking, select the lowest feasible hazard that will perform the task.