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Risk Management. What is it and why should it matter to me?

We clean the windows on skyscrapers. It’s not the only service we offer, but when you’re hiring people to dangle from ropes dozens or hundreds of feet in the air, it’s easy to see that there’s a risk involved. Yet all too many businesses, and even more employees, think that if a risk isn’t obvious it isn’t there. As an example, being a barista carries a relatively high risk of injury, due to the boiling liquids and steam in often cramped conditions, while abseiling window cleaning teams have a very low injury rate because the risks have been carefully assessed and managed.

What is risk management?

Risk management is a formal term for something we all do casually every day. Looking before you cross the road is managing (assessing and reducing) the risk you’ll be hit by a car. Taking a cautious sip of a fresh cup of tea is managing (assessing and reducing) the risk of being scalded if it’s still close to boiling.

If we do it automatically, why do we need to talk about it?

Human instincts are really poor guides to actual risks. One problem is that we naturally give more weight to our own experiences, particularly recent ones. As an example, if you burnt your tongue on a hot cuppa yesterday, you’ll be extra cautious today, less cautious next week and back to normal next month – even if the risk hasn’t changed. We’re even less rational when dealing with complex situations, which is why so many people are scared of flying (low risk) and so few people are scared of driving (higher risk of injury or death).

How can we assess risks better?

By doing a formal risk assessment, we can override our instincts and be guided by our rational brains. This lets us focus our energies on the right risks – the ones that are most likely to occur, will have the highest impact if they do occur or are easiest to prevent. As an example, novice abseilers often worry about the strength of the rope – what would happen if it snapped? In fact, this is a very low-risk scenario: the ropes are strong and tough, having been designed to withstand great strain. The clips, buckles, knots and other joins are the real risk spots as they are often done up and undone repeatedly so are at much more risk of human error. That’s why ropes might be checked once a day in a professional team but knots and straps are checked before every descent.

Who should be assessing risks?

Everyone should have basic risk awareness training as each individual will have a different perspective on their business and will need to be responsible for risk in their own area. It’s not possible to have management oversight of every single employee action, so devolved responsibility is essential. However, in many cases, a trained third-party risk assessor is the best choice for assessing new risks. At Mara Facility Services we expect all our staff to spot, query and report risks in their areas and also employ the services of independent experts to ensure that our projects are fully risk assessed and managed appropriately. Our goal is to stop as many accidents as possible before they happen.