For many thousands of years before we’d ever put capital letters on the term Risk Management, people were already managing their risks – albeit a different set of risks from those we face today. On the day man lit his first fire he quickly worked out what the new hazard was that he had created, and how best to prevent himself and others from getting hurt as a result.
Risk management in its most basic form means being able to understand what things might happen to you that you don’t want to happen, and how you are going to try and prevent them or at least reduce the chance of them occurring.
People did this long before Risk and Risk Management as fields of study were even invented – they just didn’t have formal processes and templates for doing it.
Process vs Purpose
Risk is a processed based field – we use a variety of methodologies and processes to uncover information about our situation, and then develop ways and means of dealing with the risks which we discover. But there is no “content” as such to Risk Management, only process. It is the knowledge gained through the application of risk assessment methodologies which is most important outcome, and where the real value lies.
But for those of us who work in the risk management field, it’s the processes and methodologies that we are the masters of. The results and the contents of each risk assessment belong to someone else. The methods and techniques belong to us. And so we become quite focussed on fine tuning our methods to at the same time probe more deeply and also be more widely applicable. We build spreadsheet templates that automate the process, and make sure our prompt checklists are exhaustive to ensure workshop groups cover every possible scenario.
But is the minerals industry now taking this a step too far? Have we become more focussed on following a risk assessment methodology than we have on getting real value from the process? Are we slaves to a method and template instead of making sure we understand why we are doing a risk assessment, and what exactly we want to achieve from it?
The next phase in the evolution of Risk Management in the mining industry needs to see us take a look back at the past. To look afresh at why we talk so much about risk, and why it’s important to assess and manage it well.
We need to take a step away from all of our wonderful processes and templates, and think about what it is we really want to understand and achieve. We need to start with the purpose rather than the method.
The First Step is the Weakest
I’ve recently finished renovating my house, and I try to take my passion for safety in the mining industry and keep it going at home. I always take my two minutes to think about how I could hurt myself on any particular task I’m doing around the renovations, and in so doing identify the hazards involved. I don’t fill out any forms, but I try to follow the process that we would normally follow at a mine site.
On one particular day I was hanging cornice, a job I’d not done before, so I took a little extra time to think about how best to do it, and how to not get hurt. Hazards I had to deal with were things like working on ladders, holding loads above my head, and not hitting myself with the hammer I was using to put in the support nails. So I made sure my ladder was sufficient height and sitting very stable, made sure the lengths of cornice were easy enough for two of us to lift, and put some gloves on to protect my hands.
I then lifted the first piece of cornice into place, put six nails hanging out of my mouth so they were easy to grab once I was up there, and headed off up the ladder. As I held the cornice in place, looking upwards, and grabbed the first nail from my lips, one of the other nails went back into my mouth and down my throat. This cannot be a good thing for one’s system.
In the end I was able to cough the nail up and record only a near miss rather than a potentially LTI. But what this experience taught me was that although my pre-job risk assessment process was good, the hazard identification step had let me down. I hadn’t even considered the risk of swallowing a nail.
If I had identified that risk, perhaps because I’d heard of incidents like it before, I’m confident my process would have helped me manage or eliminate the risk. But I never even identified it, so how could I hope to have the right controls in place to manage it?
On-the-Job Risk Assessments
The on-the-job risk assessment processes which are becoming increasingly common in the minerals industry are a lot like this. Whether they are called Take-5’s, STOPs, or JSEAs, they are very good at taking our workers through the process of listing controls and deciding what the remaining risk is, but only for the hazards that they’ve identified. The weakest point of these systems is the initial step of identifying what could go wrong.
The purpose of these systems is to ensure that workers stop and think about the job before they commence work. To make sure they look at all the aspects of the job – people, environment, equipment – and consider how they or someone else might get hurt as a result of what they are about to do. The purpose was never intended to be the creation of a detailed document of all the things that were already going to be done to control all of the hazards that would have already been identified.
The therein lies the key to getting real value from these frontline risk assessment processes – the real value is in the hazard identification step.
A risk not identified is a risk not managed.
We need to take a look at the training and hazard identification skills we are equipping our employees with before we send them out with a pocket sized form and ask them to perform a risk assessment. We need to help them develop better hazard awareness and identification though training, coaching, feedback, and their own experience on the job.
When hazards are adequately identified on the job, much of the rest of the process may be unnecessary. Our employees on the whole know how to eliminate or reduce a risk once they’ve identified it – and they know that if they can’t then they aren’t to proceed without seeking advice from a supervisor. They know what to do once they see a hazard, it’s their ability to see these hazards in the first place that we need to work on.
So let us not continue too much farther down the track of enforcing more detailed processes and longer checklists for on-the-job risk assessments. Let’s make sure we are clear on why we want them done and then equip our people with the skills and support to achieve this purpose.
Formal Risk Assessment
The second key area of risk management in which the minerals industry is at risk of heading down the wrong track in the future is in the way we approach formal risk assessment processes.
These are our qualitative or matrix-based risk assessments we perform in a workshop before a new piece of equipment arrives, before a complex job is undertaken, or as part of a mining project life cycle. It is in these areas of risk assessment activity that we are most exposed to becoming addicted to process in favour of valuable outcomes.
It is the unfortunate case that many project managers now make a list of the types of risk assessments they want completed rather than providing a more guiding statement as to why they want to assess risk and what the purpose is for completing these processes. By focussing primarily on the methodology to be used, the team misses the vital step of thinking about why they want to assess risk, and what it is they want to learn about their project or job from that.
Because of this, we end up with tedious workshops dominated more by scoring risks than by thinking about what could really go wrong. More focus on documentation that is correctly completed than thinking about what will actually change as a result of doing the risk assessment. And more concern about trying to think up new controls than looking critically at whether the controls which are currently in place are actually working as they are designed to.
There is no doubt that the processes and methodologies we employ to achieve our risk management goals are vital. Without these techniques we are likely to miss the identification of many hazards, use our intuition rather than good science to work out which risks are the most important, and be less-than-adequate in the risk treatment ideas that we develop. Processes help us stimulate thinking, ensure consistency, and provide a means for checking that all possible aspects have been investigated.
It is the step before these processes that we need to stay focussed on – the step of making sure we are clear on the purpose for the risk assessment, and the ways in which we’ll achieve that purpose.
Emerging Risk Techniques
The future of risk management in the mining industry will be more pragmatic, more customised, and more focussed on risk identification. We will build upon the foundations of the great processes and methodologies which we have, and take them to the next level where they really deliver great value and practical ways to reduce risk and improve our operations and projects.
As part of this fundamental change in our approach, there are two key trends emerging as new techniques to improve risk management.
The first is the use of more detailed methods to determine the likelihood of a risk. These methods, such as semi-quantitative risk assessment, go beyond the matrix and allow for a more in depth understanding of how likely our risks are to occur. By taking a more detailed look at the probabilities, particularly for catastrophic risks and business interruption risks, we can gain a much clearer idea of which risks should be given the most attention, time and resources.
And while more detailed calculations of likelihood are improving our understanding of our major risks, we are acknowledging that at the lower end of the spectrum we don’t need to be as focussed on our risk ratings as we have been. For low level risk assessments where hazards are quite well understood, there is only marginal value to be gained in the assigning of a consequence and likelihood value from a matrix. Worrying about which row and column the risk sits in must not take the focus off of identifying the hazards in the first place and then putting in place actions to control them.
Secondly, the industry is coming to a realisation that after decades of risk assessments, we seem to have listed and implemented nearly every control that we need. Finding “additional controls” is becoming more and more difficult. Where we need to focus next is on the quality and effectiveness of the controls we already have. In our risk management processes, we need to take a critical look at how well our current controls, be they hard or soft controls, are working in reality. We should be questioning whether they are indeed adequate to control the risk, and whether they work in all the situations and conditions that they need to.
By taking a close critical look at the effectiveness of the controls we currently rely on, we will be able to identify ways to improve them, and by doing so close the loopholes that may have existed that could have caused these controls to fail and let an incident occur.
The Right Track for Risk
As Risk Management becomes a part of literally everything we do in the minerals industry, from first concepts of a mining project to the smallest task in a processing plant, it is important to make sure we stay true to the intent of managing risk. We must make sure we don’t get bogged down in processes and workshops which add little value, but instead think about why we want to perform a risk assessment in the first place. Once we are clear on that, we can assemble our processes, workshops, templates and reports in support of that goal.
As users, owners and participants in Risk Management processes, it’s up to all of us to make sure we stay focussed on the things that are most important – identifying what could go wrong, and making sure we’re doing what we need to do to reduce the chance of that happening. This is the real purpose and benefit of risk management. As an industry built on practicality and getting the things done that matter, let’s not get lost down the track of using process for process sake.
This article was originally published in the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy Bulletin, November 2011, authored by Jamie Ross. Link pending.
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