Danger and risk

The words “danger” and “risk” are often used interchangeably, and while you may have thought they mean the same thing, they actually have very different meanings. In this article, we will explain the distinction between these concepts so that you can safely manage all hazards and risks both in your workplace and in your everyday life.



DefinitionRisk is the possibility or probability that a person will suffer harm or experience an adverse health effect if exposed to a hazard.Hazard is any source of potential harm, damage, or adverse health effects to something or someone.
DependenceIt will depend on a specific scenario or context.It will depend on external factors.
TypesIndustrial, environmental, health, economic and financial.Biological, chemical, ergonomic, physical, psychosocial and safety.
ExamplesCigarette smokers are 12 times more likely to die from lung cancer than non-smokers,Handling a knife and cutting yourself, having anxiety, fear or depression when being bullied, electrocuting yourself when handling electricity.

Definition of danger

The meaning of the word danger can be confusing . Dictionaries often do not give specific definitions or combine it with the term “risk.” For example, a dictionary defines danger as “danger or risk,” which helps explain why many people use the terms interchangeably.

There are many definitions of hazard, but the most common when it comes to health and safety in the workplace is:

Hazard is any source of potential harm, damage, or adverse health effects to something or someone.

Basically, the hazard is the potential for harm or adverse effect (for example, for people as health effects, for organizations as loss of property or equipment, or for the environment). Sometimes the resulting damage is called a hazard rather than the actual source of the hazard. For example, tuberculosis (TB) disease might be considered a “danger” by some but, in general, the bacterium that causes TB (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) would be considered the “danger” or the “dangerous biological agent”.

Examples of danger

Hazards in everyday life or in the workplace can come from a wide variety of sources. General examples include any substance, material, process, practice, etc. that has the capacity to cause damage or adverse effect on the health of a person or property.

  • Thing: Knife. Danger: Cut
  • Substance: Benzene Danger: Leukemia
  • Material: Mycobacterial tuberculosis Danger: Tuberculosis
  • Power source: Electricity Danger: Electrocution
  • Condition: Wet floor Hazard: Slips, falls
  • Process: Welding Danger: Metal Fume Fever
  • Practice: Hard rock mining Danger: Silicosis
  • Behavior: Harassment Danger: Anxiety, fear, depression

Hazards in the workplace also include practices or conditions that release uncontrolled energy such as:

  • an object that could fall from a height (potential or gravitational energy),
  • a leak in a chemical reaction (chemical energy),
  • the release of compressed gas or vapor (pressure; high temperature),
  • entanglement of hair or clothing in rotating equipment (kinetic energy), or
  • contact with electrodes of a battery or capacitor (electrical energy).

Definition of risk

Risk is the possibility or probability that a person will suffer harm or experience an adverse health effect if exposed to a hazard. It can also apply to situations with loss of property or equipment, or harmful effects on the environment.

For example: the risk of developing cancer from cigarette smoking could be expressed as:

  • “Cigarette smokers are 12 times more likely to die from lung cancer than non-smokers,” or
  • “X number per 100,000 smokers develop lung cancer” (the actual number depends on factors such as their age and how many years they have smoked).

These risks are expressed as a probability of developing a disease or being injured, while the hazard refers to the responsible agent (ie, smoking).

Factors that influence the degree or probability of risk are:

  • The nature of the exposure: how much a person is exposed to a dangerous thing or condition (for example, several times a day or once a year),
  • How the person is exposed (eg, inhaling a vapor, skin contact) and
  • The severity of the effect . For example, one substance can cause skin cancer, while another can cause irritation.

What is a risk evaluation?

Risk assessment is the process in which you:

  • Identify hazards and risk factors that have the potential to cause harm ( hazard identification ).
  • Analyze and evaluate the risk associated with that hazard ( risk analysis and risk assessment ).
  • Determine the appropriate ways to eliminate the hazard or control the risk when the hazard cannot be eliminated ( risk control ).

Other terms to describe these processes

It is common to see the hazard identification and associated risk assessment process described in various ways, including ‘hazard assessment’ , ‘hazard and risk assessment’ , ‘risk assessment of all hazards’ , etc. .

Regardless of the terminology used, the critical steps are to ensure that the workplace has adopted a systematic approach that looks for any hazards (existing or potential), has taken appropriate steps to determine the level of risk from these hazards, and then has taken measures to control the risk or eliminate the hazard.

What is an adverse health effect?

A general definition of an adverse health effect is “any change in body function or cell structures that may cause disease or health problems . 

Adverse health effects include:

  • bodily harm,
  • disease,
  • change in the way the body works, grows or develops,
  • effects on a developing fetus (teratogenic effects, foetotoxic effects),
  • effects on children, grandchildren, etc. (heritable genetic effects)
  • decreased life expectancy,
  • change in mental condition resulting from stress, traumatic experiences, exposure to solvents, etc., and
  • effects on the ability to adapt to additional stress.
Will exposure to hazards in the workplace always cause injury, illness, or other adverse health effects?

Not necessarily. To answer this question, you need to know:

  • what dangers are present,
  • how a person is exposed (route of exposure, as well as how often and how much exposure occurred),
  • what kind of effect might result from the specific exposure a person experienced,
  • the risk (or probability) that exposure to a dangerous thing or condition will cause injury or illness or some occurrence that causes harm, and
  • how serious the harm, injury or harm (adverse health effect) from exposure would be.

The effects can be acute , meaning that injury or damage can occur or be felt as soon as a person comes into contact with the hazardous agent (for example, an acid splash in a person’s eyes). Some responses may be chronic (late). For example, exposure to poison ivy can cause red swelling of the skin two to six hours after contact with the plant. On the other hand, there may be longer delays: Mesothelioma, a type of cancer in the lining of the lung cavity, can develop 20 years or more after exposure to asbestos.

Once the hazard is removed or eliminated, the effects can be reversible or irreversible (permanent) . For example, a hazard can cause an injury that can heal completely (reversible) or result in an untreatable disease (irreversible).

What kinds of dangers are there?

A common way to classify hazards is by category:

  • Biological: bacteria, viruses, insects, plants, birds, animals and humans, etc.
  • Chemical: depends on the physical, chemical and toxic properties of the chemical,
  • Ergonomic – repetitive movements, incorrect workstation setup, etc.
  • Physical: radiation, magnetic fields, extreme pressures (high pressure or vacuum), noise, etc.
  • Psychosocial:  stress, violence, etc.,
  • Safety – slip / trip hazards, inadequate machine protection, equipment malfunction or breakdown.

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