Hazard as a Concept - The OHS Body of Knowledge

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Hazard as a Concept - The OHS Body of Knowledge
Hazard as a
OHS Body of Knowledge
Hazard as a Concept
April, 2012
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First published in 2012 by the Safety Institute of Australia Ltd, Tullamarine, Victoria, Australia.
ISBN 978-0-9808743-1-0
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Citation of the whole Body of Knowledge should be as:
HaSPA (Health and Safety Professionals Alliance).(2012). The Core Body of Knowledge for Generalist
OHS Professionals. Tullamarine, VIC. Safety Institute of Australia.
Citation of individual chapters should be as, for example:
Pryor, P., Capra, M. (2012). Foundation Science. In HaSPA (Health and Safety Professionals
Alliance), The Core Body of Knowledge for Generalist OHS Professionals. Tullamarine, VIC. Safety
Institute of Australia.
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OHS Body of Knowledge
Hazard as a Concept
April, 2012
OHS Body of Knowledge
Hazard as a Concept
April, 2012
OHS Body of Knowledge
Hazard as a Concept
April, 2012
Synopsis of the OHS Body of Knowledge
A defined body of knowledge is required as a basis for professional certification and for
accreditation of education programs giving entry to a profession. The lack of such a body of
knowledge for OHS professionals was identified in reviews of OHS legislation and OHS
education in Australia. After a 2009 scoping study, WorkSafe Victoria provided funding to
support a national project to develop and implement a core body of knowledge for generalist
OHS professionals in Australia.
The process of developing and structuring the main content of this document was managed
by a Technical Panel with representation from Victorian universities that teach OHS and
from the Safety Institute of Australia, which is the main professional body for generalist OHS
professionals in Australia. The Panel developed an initial conceptual framework which was
then amended in accord with feedback received from OHS tertiary-level educators
throughout Australia and the wider OHS profession. Specialist authors were invited to
contribute chapters, which were then subjected to peer review and editing. It is anticipated
that the resultant OHS Body of Knowledge will in future be regularly amended and updated
as people use it and as the evidence base expands.
Conceptual structure
The OHS Body of Knowledge takes a ‘conceptual’ approach. As concepts are abstract, the
OHS professional needs to organise the concepts into a framework in order to solve a
problem. The overall framework used to structure the OHS Body of Knowledge is that:
Work impacts on the safety and health of humans who work in organisations. Organisations are
influenced by the socio-political context. Organisations may be considered a system which may
contain hazards which must be under control to minimise risk. This can be achieved by understanding
models causation for safety and for health which will result in improvement in the safety and health of
people at work. The OHS professional applies professional practice to influence the organisation to
being about this improvement.
OHS Body of Knowledge
Hazard as a Concept
April, 2012
This can be represented as:
The OHS Body of Knowledge provides a basis for accreditation of OHS professional
education programs and certification of individual OHS professionals. It provides guidance
for OHS educators in course development, and for OHS professionals and professional
bodies in developing continuing professional development activities. Also, OHS regulators,
employers and recruiters may find it useful for benchmarking OHS professional practice.
Importantly, the OHS Body of Knowledge is neither a textbook nor a curriculum; rather it
describes the key concepts, core theories and related evidence that should be shared by
Australian generalist OHS professionals. This knowledge will be gained through a
combination of education and experience.
Accessing and using the OHS Body of Knowledge for generalist OHS professionals
The OHS Body of Knowledge is published electronically. Each chapter can be downloaded
separately. However users are advised to read the Introduction, which provides background to
the information in individual chapters. They should also note the copyright requirements and
the disclaimer before using or acting on the information.
OHS Body of Knowledge
Hazard as a Concept
April, 2012
Hazard as a Concept
Pam Pryor BSc, BEd, GDipOHM, FSIA
Secretary, SIA OHS Education Chapter
Sessional Lecturer, Senior Research Fellow and PhD candidate, University of Ballarat
Email: [email protected]
Pam has qualifications in education and OHS, and has been a practising OHS professional
for more than 25 years. She was a technical advisor in OHS skills development to the
National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. Pam was the SIA representative
on the Technical Panel for the OHS Body of Knowledge project and chair of the
Technical Panel.
The OHS Body of Knowledge Technical Panel
Chair: Pam Pryor (SIA)
Dr David Borys (University of Ballarat)
Professor Mike Capra (SIA)
Associate Professor Wendy Macdonald (La Trobe University)
Dr Jodi Oakman (La Trobe University)
Leo Ruschena (RMIT University)
Associate Professor Susanne Tepe (RMIT University)
Peer reviewers
Professor Chris Winder BA(Hons), GCertOHSMgt, MSc, PhD, FSIA
Risk and Safety Sciences Group, University of New South Wales
Dr Steve Cowley PhD, BSc(Hons)(OHS), MSc(OccHyg), GCert(Ed), FSIA, RSP
Steve Cowley Health & Safety Consulting
OHS Body of Knowledge
Hazard as a Concept
Core Body of
Knowledge for the
Generalist OHS
April, 2012
Core Body of Knowledge for the Generalist OHS Professional
Hazard as a Concept
In occupational health and safety (OHS), the term ‘hazard’ is defined and used in many
different ways. In introducing a series of hazard-specific chapters in the OHS Body of
Knowledge, this chapter considers some of the issues associated with these various
definitions and applications, including, for example, the common misidentification of failures
of controls as hazards. This chapter discusses a range of definitions and classification systems
for hazards and proposes that different definitions and classification systems may be useful
depending on the context of the OHS activity; extended discussion on the topic is advocated.
While subsequent hazard chapters are organised in accordance with the energy classification
system, the generalist OHS professional should apply the knowledge in a way that recognises
that multiple hazards may be present in complex systems.
hazard, hazardous, risk, energy, complex systems
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April, 2012
1 Introduction ................................................................................................................... 1
2 ‘Hazard’ definitional issues ............................................................................................ 1
2.1 Limitations of the energy-damage conception of hazard .......................................... 3
3 Classifications of hazards ............................................................................................... 4
3.1 A common classification ......................................................................................... 4
3.2 Energy-based hazard classification .......................................................................... 5
3.3 Contextual classification of hazards ........................................................................ 6
4 Implications for practice ................................................................................................. 7
5 Implications for the OHS Body of Knowledge ............................................................... 8
Key thinkers ...................................................................................................................... 8
References ......................................................................................................................... 9
OHS Body of Knowledge
Hazard as a Concept
April, 2012
OHS Body of Knowledge
Hazard as a Concept
April, 2012
In occupational health and safety (OHS), the term ‘hazard’ is defined and applied in many
different ways. As the use of terminology is fundamental to common understanding, lack of
clarity on the meaning of hazard poses a significant barrier to the achievement of effective
hazard management in the workplace
This chapter addresses some of the issues associated with the term ‘hazard’ with the aim of
setting the context for several hazard-specific chapters in the OHS Body of Knowledge. It
discusses some classifications of hazards and considers conceptual implications for OHS
practice and for how the OHS Body of Knowledge is structured. It is not the intention to
advocate adoption of any specific definition of hazard, but rather to stimulate informed
discussion from a common understanding of hazards, their definitions and classifications.
‘Hazard’ definitional issues
The term ‘hazard’ is used in many contexts. In a community context, for example, references
are made to meteors, earthquakes and floods as ‘natural hazards,’ golfers refer to ‘playing the
hazard’ and hazard is sometimes used as a verb (e.g. to ‘hazard a guess’). A Google search
for ‘definition of hazard not financial or insurance’ results in more than 7 million hits; some
of these present ‘hazard’ as synonymous with ‘risk,’ while others adopt the more common
‘source of harm’ usage.
It might be expected that narrowing the search to OHS sources would clarify the OHSspecific meaning of hazard, but this is not the case. An abundance of different OHS-specific
definitions have been proposed. The International Labour Organization (ILO) defined a
hazard as “The inherent potential to cause injury or damage to people's health” (ILO
(International Labour Organisation), p. 15). While this conception is open to encompassing
all types of hazard, the resultant vagueness makes it difficult to apply. Another commonly
used definition that is arguably only slightly more conducive to operational application is the
Standards Australia/Standards New Zealand (SA/SNZ) definition that refers to a hazard as: “a
source or a situation with a potential for harm in terms of human injury or ill-health, damage
to property, damage to the environment, or a combination of these” (Standards Australia,
2001). A similarly broad approach to hazard definition was adopted by Safe Work Australia
in the 2010 draft code of practice developed to support implementation of the national Model
Work Health and Safety Act:
Hazard means a situation or thing that has the potential to harm a person. Hazards at work may include:
noisy machinery, a moving forklift, chemicals, electricity, working at heights, a repetitive job, bullying
and violence, a badly designed workplace and inadequate management systems (for example, no
procedures for performing tasks safely) (Safework Australia, 2010).
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This definition took the approach of defining a hazard as a ‘thing’ or ‘situation’. It is also
potentially confusing as it includes examples that represent not hazards, but failures in
controls (i.e. “inadequate management systems” and “no procedures”) that are part of the
process that gives rise to the injury or damage rather than the hazard itself. Including such
preconditions in the definition leads to millions of possibilities and so renders the term
‘hazard’ meaningless.
Australia’s Type of Occurrence Classification System (National Occupational Health and
Safety Commission, 2004) added another dimension to the hazard-definition discussion in
that it bypassed the term entirely in favour of “agency of injury or disease,” which it defined
as “the object, substance or circumstance directly involved in inflicting the injury or disease;”
examples include falls, heat, radiation, sound and pressure, and body stressing, which,
conceptually are hazards.
Another aspect of the terminology issue is that hazard is often confused with risk, and similar
definitional problems apply to risk1 as to hazard. While the two concepts are closely linked,
there is an important difference – risk refers to outcomes (or consequences) whereas hazard
relates to a source of risk. In addition, risk is about uncertainty and is context and
circumstance dependent (SA/SNZ (Standards Australia/Standards New Zealand), 2009);
hazards, on the other hand, are either present or not. The two concepts are not
interchangeable, and it can be problematic when confusion surrounds their use. Interestingly,
while the now-superseded standard AS/NZS 4360:2004 Risk Management defined a hazard as
“a source of potential harm” (Standards Australia, 2004), the international standard AS/NZS
ISO 31000:2009 which replaced it elected to refer instead to “risk sources” defined as
“elements which alone or in combination have the intrinsic potential to give rise to risk”
(SA/SNZ (Standards Australia/Standards New Zealand), 2009, p. 4).
Turning to the OHS professional literature, one of the earliest attempt to define hazards in an
OHS context is the concept of hazards as “sources of potentially damaging energy”. The
origin of the definition of hazards in terms of energy is usually attributed to Gibson who
published in 1961 with the definition and concept being elaborated on by Haddon and
Wigglesworth in 1973 and further refined by Viner who defined hazards as:
Sources of potentially damaging energy which either exist naturally or as a result of humankind’s
modification of the naturally occurring world...where damage (injury) is the result of an incident energy
whose intensity at the point of contact with the recipient exceed the damage threshold of the recipient
(Viner, 1991, p. 42).
The definition of a hazard as a source of potentially damaging energy is the basis for several
models of accident causation (refer Viner, 1991).
See OHS BoK Risk.
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The concept of a hazard as a source of potentially damaging energy is a useful one for the
OHS professional; it has relevance for understanding causation and for proactive
identification of hazards as a basis for taking action. However, the energy-damage model has
its limitations. It is not particularly helpful for understanding the complexities of the damage
process in situations where there is an appreciable human-factor component, where the
effects of a hazard have a long latency period, where damage may be the result of more than
one hazard or the interaction of several hazards, and in considering system complexity. These
limitations are discussed below.
Limitations of the energy-damage conception of hazard
2.1.1 Situations with a high human-factor component
The concept of hazards as potentially damaging energy is not helpful when the expression of
damage is affected by human-factor components, such as in biomechanical or manual-taskrelated hazards and psychosocial hazards. The expression of biomechanical hazards may be
determined by human factors such as age, gender, fitness, anthropometry and technique. The
expression of psychosocial hazards may be affected by factors such as self-esteem,
competence and coping mechanisms. While in modern OHS practice these types of factors
are unlikely to be the focus of primary control strategies, it is likely that in the future these
types of factors will be the focus of secondary control strategies for psychosocial hazards.2
This reinforces the importance of understanding the complex interactions of these factors in
the expression of the hazard.
2.1.2 Hazards where effects have a long latency period
There are occasions when damage or ill health is manifested and investigators of OHS
problems must retrospectively determine the hazard(s) that was the source(s) of the effect(s).
During a long latency period (e.g. it is not uncommon for asbestos exposure to result in
disease 40 years post-exposure), various work and personal circumstances can influence the
outcome of the harm, making detection of the specific hazard(s) difficult. In such situations,
simplistic definitions of hazards and the energy-damage definition are of limited value.
2.1.3 Multiple hazards
In cases where the type of risk (i.e. the possible injury or harm to health) stems largely or
entirely from one type of hazard, the issues surrounding terminology might not be
problematic. However, harm may result from the interaction of several hazards, such as the
synergistic effect of psychosocial and biomechanical hazards3 and ototoxic chemicals that, in
combination with noise, have a more detrimental effect on hearing than noise alone.4 In such
See OHS BoK Global concept: Health.
See OHS BoK Hazards: Biomechanical.
See OHS BoK Hazard: Noise and vibration.
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cases, the ‘damaging energies’ concept may result in risks being controlled independently of
each other (Macdonald, 2005).
2.1.4 Hazards arising from complexity
Recent research and discussions focus on OHS as part of complex systems. 5 From such a
perspective, the OHS professional must consider the functioning of the whole organisational
system and comprehend how different elements and processes act together when exposed to a
range of influences simultaneously, rather than just search for broken parts (Dekker, 2011, p.
127). Traditional OHS models are based on the premise that for incidents to happen,
something or someone must break or malfunction. However, many writers (Dekker and
others) have described a phenomenon of ‘drift’ where organisations fail because they
normalise very small changes to parameters until the system as a whole drifts into an unsafe
state. In complex systems, drift into failure can happen without anything breaking, or without
anybody actively erring or violating rules. Fundamentally, this challenges assumptions about
cause and effect. These processes are not particularly well understood as the growth of
complexity in society and organisations has outpaced our understanding of how complex
systems work and fail (Dekker, 2011, p. xiii). In light of these observations, definitions of
hazards may need reconceptualising and further revision as our understanding develops.
Classifications of hazards
Classifying things into categories is a way of imposing some order on, and increasing our
understanding of, our environment (e.g. classification of biological organisms imposes order
on the biological world to increase understanding). While many OHS sources provide lists of
example hazards (Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, 2008), there have been some
attempts to classify hazards based on a unifying concept. It is debatable, however, whether
some of these classifications serve to increase understanding or simply add to the confusion
surrounding hazards. Three hazard classification systems are outlined below.
A common classification
A commonly used classification includes the following five categories of hazard:
Biological: bacteria, viruses, other micro-organisms, insects, plants, animals
Chemical: toxicants, toxins that affect the body or chemicals that lead to fire or
Physical: electricity, radiation, pressure, noise, heights, vibration
See OHS BoK Systems.
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Ergonomic:6 repetitive movement, manual handling, workplace design, job and task
Psychosocial: stress, violence and other workplace stressors.
(See for example CCOHS, 2009)
Some sources have made variations to the categories in this common classification system;
for example, Comcare Australia (2004) and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and
Safety (2009). The latter listed a sixth potentially confusing category of “safety” hazards that
included “inappropriate machine guarding, equipment malfunctions or breakdowns,” which
are failures in controls rather than hazards.
Energy-based hazard classification
Energy-based classifications focus on established types of energy. Viner (1991) provided a
detailed list with examples (Table 1).
Table 1: Sources of energy as basis for a classification of hazards (Viner, 1991)
Energy Type
Sub-type or Description
Potentially injurious or damaging energy sources external to the injured person or damaged
‘Potential energies’
Gravitational energy, structural strain energy, stored energy in
compressed fluids
Kinetic energy
Energy stored in a body’s mass due to its speed in linear or
rotational motion
Mechanical power
The rate of energy flow in machinery from the source of power to
the point where the energy is absorbed in the action of the
Acoustic and mechanical
Noise, acoustic shock waves, mechanical vibration in solids
Electrical energy
Electrical potential energy (volts), electromagnetic vibration,
electrostatic charge
Nuclear particle radiation
Radiation of nuclear origin
Thermal energy
Solids, liquids, gases (including flames)
Ambient (atmospheric conditions)
Chemical energy
Molecular bonding energy released in oxidising actions (fire and
Modification to the chemical processes of the body (acute toxic
and non-respirable conditions)
Microbiological ‘energy’
Viruses, bacteria, fungi
Muscle energy
Attacks (purposeful) or inadvertent striking
While the term ‘ergonomic’ is commonly used in these classifications it perhaps should be re-titled
‘biomechanical’ as ergonomics is the science of work and is concerned with the design of safe and efficient
workplaces and processes, and is not a category of hazard.
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Potentially injurious or damaging energy sources within the injured person or damaged body
Gravitational potential energy
Due to height above a datum
Kinetic energy
In body movement (self generated or externally powered)
Muscle energy
In the maintenance of body posture, in undertaking physical work
and force application, in the generation of movement
Chemical energy
Molecular bonding energy released in oxidising reactions
While Viner included “internal kinetic energy” and “muscle energy” in his list of sources of
energy as a way of addressing hazards associated with manual tasks or biomechanical
hazards, many OHS professionals and educators may perceive this as ‘forcing’ the energybased categorisation to fit all circumstances. It is more useful perhaps to apply the energy
classification in circumstances where it is appropriate while noting the limitations.
Contextual classification of hazards
Another set of categories was proposed by Macdonald (2005), who expressed concern about
the limitations arising from definitions that imply that a hazard must have a finite, physical
presence. Macdonald proposed differentiation of hazard categories according to different
elements of the work system (Table 2).
Table 2: Classification of hazards taking account of context and conditions (Macdonald,
substance or
A specific object that
increases risk to health
in its immediate spatial
or temporal vicinity
A work task or activity
that is inherently a
potential source of
risk, so that workers
are exposed to one or
more of the following:
Ongoing, sub-optimal
conditions of workers
that increase their
personal vulnerability
to hazardous activities
and conditions
A condition of any
component of the
system (equipment,
workstation, work
system condition
OHS Body of Knowledge
Hazard as a Concept
A hazardous chemical or biological agent;
An object on a path that could be tripped over;
An unguarded machine blade;
A vehicle moving at significant speed;
A poorly designed hand tool.
Biomechanical hazards … e.g. heavy lifting, highly
repetitive movements, prolonged static postures
Psychosocial hazards … e.g. work that is likely to cause
psychological stress (link), due to factors such as:
extended periods of external pacing at a high rate with
short cycle times; personal interactions with aggressive or
abusive clients, etc
Pre-existing injuries;
States of chronic fatigue or stress due to factors such as
inadequate sleep, poor work-life balance;
Sub-standard competence in performing normal work
Very cold environment;
Inadequate staffing level;
Absent or inadequate resources (e.g. lifting aids,
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procedures and
organisation, job
design, management
system, physical and
environments) that
increases risk
personal state
A more transient
personal state,
typically chronic stress
or fatigue, that results
from one or more of
the above factors and
increases risk –
directly to that
information, equipment, emotional support);
Inadequate time to complete required work;
Piece-rated payment system;
Very long working hours;
Badly designed shift rotation system;
Management system that results in workers having
inadequate levels of: control or decision latitude,
performance feedback, recognition/reward of effort and
good performance.
Due to physiological effects of the stress response, or
overloading/overexertion of specific body tissues; or
Indirectly due to performance degradation and a
consequent increase in errors that increase injury risk
Some of these categories conform to the common understanding of a hazard as a ‘thing;’
others, particularly those listed by Macdonald as psychosocial hazards and hazards relating to
ongoing conditions of ‘the system’ are referred to as ‘hazardous.’ Some OHS professionals
would consider Macdonald’s “hazardous personal condition,” “hazardous system condition”
and “hazardous personal state” categories to be risk factors rather than hazards. Moreover,
some examples provided for the hazardous personal and system conditions, such as
substandard competence or lack of equipment, would be perceived by OHS professionals as
failures in controls. Indeed, several of Macdonald’s categories correlate with Reason’s (1997)
“latent failures” or “unsafe conditions.” Consequently, it can be argued that this is an
example of a classification system that goes beyond ‘hazard.’
Implications for practice
The generalist OHS professional should be familiar with the various definitions and
classifications of hazards (which extend beyond those discussed in this chapter), and their
evolution and conceptual underpinning. Also, they should be able to discuss the nature of
hazards and rationalise their understanding of them.
The definitional issues discussed have an important implication for practice – failure in
control mechanisms should not be construed as a hazard. When a definition of a hazard, such
as that developed by Safe Work Australia (see section 2), cites examples of a hazard such as
an inappropriate guard, a lack of procedure or a lack of training, then the response will be to
fit a different guard, write a procedure or provide training; by definition, the hazard defines
the control option. However, if a different definition and classification had been used (e.g.
moving parts of plant, a chemical or a manual handling task), different and perhaps more
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appropriate controls may have been suggested. The primary objective in OHS practice is to
get the basics right and the basics are not likely to be in place when failures in controls are
confused with hazards.
In addition, the author is of the opinion that broad, all-encompassing definitions of hazards
such as “a situation or thing that has the potential to harm” (Safe Work Australia, 2010) are
of limited use for the OHS professional engaging with workplace personnel in identifying
hazards. The OHS professional may find it more useful to apply a definition of hazard that is
appropriate to the situation at the time. For example, in developing a checklist for workplace
inspections, it may be appropriate for a simple, energy classification system to underpin the
list of hazards to be inspected. However, when speaking with senior management, it may be
appropriate to use a more multifaceted classification system that recognises aspects of latent
conditions. In incident investigation, it may be useful to use both these classifications and
more to describe systemic failures. However, as stated by Cross7 the fundamental test as to
whether some thing is a hazard is that if it is eliminated there is no risk.
As our understanding of system complexity evolves, it may be necessary to adapt our
classifications of hazard to acknowledge dangerous conditions that emerge from seemingly
safe elements interfacing with other seemingly safe elements. The concept of ‘drift’ in
systems is an example of an area of emerging knowledge that may impact the thinking and
language of OHS professionals in relation to hazards.
Implications for the OHS Body of Knowledge
Partially to facilitate clarity of presentation, the hazard-specific chapters in the OHS Body of
Knowledge have been organised on an energy-damage basis. However, OHS professionals
and educators need to apply this knowledge in a way that recognises that multiple hazards
may be present in many situations, and that workplaces are inherently complex systems.
Knowledge evolves as people engage with it. OHS professionals, educators, researchers,
policy makers and regulators should all engage in discussion about hazards, and the
definitions and classifications of hazards, with the view of arriving at a shared understanding.
This may include tailoring different definitions and classifications of hazards to different
contexts and purposes, and modifying these as our understanding of complex systems and
systemic failure develops.
Key thinkers
Haddon, Wigglesworth, Viner, Dekker
See OHS BoK Risk.
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CCOHS (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. (2009). Hazard and risk
[Electronic Version], 9th May 2011, from www.ccohs.ca
Comcare. (2004). Identify hazards in the workplace: A guide for hazards in the workplace
Canberra Commonwealth of Australia.
Dekker, S. (2011). Drift into failure. Surrey, England Ashgate Publishing Limited
ILO (International Labour Organisation). Building Safety, ILO Construction Training
Package: Theme Summary 1 - Fundamental principles Retrieved July 7, 2011, from
Macdonald, W. (2005). A hierarchy of risk control measures for prevention of work-related
musculoskeletal disorders Paper presented at the International Ergonomics
Conference on Humanising Work and the Work Environment Guwahati, India.
National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. (2004, 2004). Type of Occurrence
Classification System. 3rd. Retrieved 29th July 2005, from
Reason, J. (1997). Managing the risks of organisational accidents Aldershot: Ashgate
Publishing Limited.
SA/SNZ (Standards Australia/Standards New Zealand). (2009). AS/NZS ISO 31000: Risk
management - Principles and guidelines Sydney: Standards Australia.
Safework Australia. (2010). Code of practice: How to manage work health and safety risks
(draft). Canberra
Standards Australia. (2001). AS/NZS 4801 Occupational health and safety management
systems - Specification with guidance for use. Sydney: Standards Australia.
Standards Australia. (2004). AS4360: Risk management Sydney: Standards Australia.
Viner, D. (1991). Accident analysis and risk control. Melbourne VRJ Delphi.
Workplace Health and Safety Queensland. (2008). Risk Management Code of Practice 2007
Supplement 1 – Hazard identification. Brisbane Department of Justice and Attorney
General, Queensland
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