Can Risk Ever Be Zero in the Workplace?


In the workplace, it's impossible to eliminate all risks entirely. While businesses can take significant steps to minimise hazards and reduce risks through proper assessments and safety measures, achieving zero risk is not feasible. The goal is to create the safest possible environment for employees, acknowledging that some level of risk will always remain.

Can Risk Ever Be Zero in the Workplace? The ideal target for reducing risk is zero.

Eliminating hazards and creating a risk-free workplace ensures everyone remains safe and healthy. But is it possible to achieve zero risk? Explore strategies to minimise workplace hazards and enhance safety protocols.

Why Every Business Needs a Risk Assessment: Ensuring Workplace Safety

Can Risk Ever Be Zero in the Workplace – Every business must conduct a risk assessment for its activities, as it’s not just a best practice but a legal requirement. Risk assessments are crucial for controlling hazards, reducing risks, and ensuring a safer workplace.

The ideal scenario would eliminate all hazards and risks, creating a risk-free environment. This ensures that every employee is safe at work and returns home healthy.

While it’s reasonable to expect workers to return home safe and healthy from their jobs, is it possible for risk to ever be zero?

Can all risks be eliminated?

Can Risk Ever Be Zero in the Workplace – A zero-risk level would mean eliminating all risks until there is no risk. In a world where we are constantly looking to improve, is the target we are striving towards (zero risk) actually achievable?

I don’t think so.

To test this, let’s examine a couple of example activities and see if we can eliminate all of their risks.

Test 1: Window Cleaning

First, let’s consider cleaning a first-floor window with a ladder. The main risk here is falling from height.

You must carry your cleaning tools up the ladder and use them when you reach the window. You’re going to struggle to hold a bucket up the ladder safely. And once you get up there, you need to clean the window while balancing the ladder. While this was once common practice, it’s not great for risk levels.

Can Risk Ever Be Zero in the Workplace – Can you eliminate work at height to remove the hazard? Yes, you can.

The work could be carried out from ground level. Telescopic poles with cleaning tools attached could be used. There would be no more work at height.

Fantastic! You’ve removed the main risk from the activity. And that’s a good thing. But is the task now zero risk? No. There are still other risks.

  • strains from manual handling
  • trips from tools and equipment
  • skin irritation from contact with cleaning solutions
  • contact injuries from dropping the pole
  • contact with vehicles
  • navigating obstacles
  • weather exposure

You still have manual handling, and you’re still using cleaning chemicals. You still need to consider where you are standing. Are there other people or vehicles that could knock into you? Are there doors that could open into where you are working? You will be looking up, so you won’t have the best ground-level awareness during the cleaning process. Is the attachment fixed securely? Could it fall?

There are still risks involved with the activity, but you have reduced the risks by eliminating the hazard of working at height.

Test 2: Floor Cleaning

Okay, next up, and sticking with a cleaning activity, what about cleaning a floor? It’s not a high-hazard activity. It’s indoors, and you are at ground level. Can the risk be zero here?

You can prevent contact with cleaning chemicals by using a mop and gloves, wearing safety footwear to prevent slipping, and putting signs out warning everyone else that there is a wet floor.

You can work in a way that greatly reduces the risk. Clearly display warning signs. Never work with the bucket behind you. Don’t overfill the bucket. Use a new pair of gloves when yours become damaged or contaminated.

But the risk is stilln’t zero. People could ignore the sign and slip anyway, walk into it, and fall over it. Your gloves could get a hole in them, or you could knock your bucket over and slip on the spillage. If you’re using water near electrical sockets, the client will not let you turn all the electricity off in an occupied building!

Why can’t all risks be eliminated?

So, we didn’t manage to totally eliminate all risks from our test activities, and you probably never will unless you don’t do the activity at all, but that’s not really how work gets done.

But there will always be some remaining risks, even tiny ones. But some risk is not zero risk.

All risks can’t be eliminated because health and safety are part of life. Even if you were to stay in bed and never get up, you are at risk of bed sores and poor health due to lack of exercise.

The world is full of health and safety risks. Electrical faults happen, even on new or well-maintained equipment. People have heart attacks while driving. Freak weather events can catch you out. Even getting to work is a risk. You could get struck by lightning. You could trip up on the pavement, fall and hurt yourself.

We like to think every accident is preventable, but we can’t always stop things from happening.

But just because all risks can’t be eliminated doesn’t mean some risks can’t be. The top control in the hierarchy of risk control is elimination. So, just like we eliminated work at height in our window cleaning example, you should eliminate the biggest risks where possible. Look at the near miss here to give you a better overview.

Do you need to be at zero risk?

Can Risk Ever Be Zero in the Workplace – You might not get to zero, but you can reduce the risk.

Maintaining equipment reduces the risk of a problem or fault. Staying healthy reduces the risk of a heart attack and other medical problems. Checking the weather forecast reduces the likelihood of being caught out by unexpected wind, rain, and storms.

At work, the goal of your risk assessment isn’t to reduce risk to zero. It is to reduce risk as close to zero as possible. To do this, think about what could go wrong and minimise the chance of that happening.

Understanding the Risk Assessment Process: Reducing Workplace Hazards

The risk assessment is essential for every business to identify potential hazards and implement control measures to minimise risks.

Once potential issues are identified, appropriate control measures can be established to reduce the risk. For instance, the risk of falling from height is significantly higher when using a ladder than a scaffold platform with proper edge protection. With a scaffold, workers can have both hands free for tasks, decreasing the chances of falling or dropping objects. While accidents can still occur, the risk is considerably reduced.

It’s important to note that eliminating all risks is not expected, as it is simply impossible. The goal is to make the workplace as safe as reasonably practicable.

Minimising Risks While Sawing Wood: Safety Measures and Considerations

When sawing wood, you can reduce the risk of wood dust inhalation by wearing a dust mask and performing the task outdoors, where ventilation is better, preventing dust buildup in the workplace. However, working outside exposes you to weather conditions, and increased sun exposure raises the risk of skin damage.

In some cases, removing one risk can introduce others; your challenge is to choose the best solution that creates the lowest risk.

Of course, the best way to control risk is to eliminate it. Where you can, you should. But you are not expected to eliminate all risks. The law doesn’t require this, and it wouldn’t be practical.

Can you use a saw or a drill without any risk? No. Can you control the risks and prevent harm by implementing safety measures? Yes!

The law requires risk to be reduced as low as is reasonably practicable. This is known as ALARP. It means controlling hazards and minimising risks as much as possible.

If there is a safer way of doing the job, you should take it. If there are control measures that will help keep your workplace safe, you should use them.

If the risk is above zero, it may be acceptable. If the risk is above ALARP, it’s too much.

The risk can’t be zero, but it can be reduced. There will always be some level of risk remaining. This is known as residual risk.

This article was written by Mathew Oldham (HSQE Consultancy Ltd). Mathew has over 20 years of experience in health and safety and an MSc (Hons) in Construction Management. Mathew is NEBOSH Health and Safety, Construction, Fire, Environment and Diploma qualified and CertIOSH.