Hazards And Risks

Instincts v. reasoned decisions

The great decisions of human life have as a rule far more to do with the instinctsand other mysterious unconscious factors than with conscious will and well-meaning reasonableness…. Each of us carries his own life-form an indeterminableform which cannot be superseded by any other.Carl Gustav Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 1933.

In its basic form, life on earth is dependent on reflexes and instincts. At its most developed form, it revolves around the ability and quality of decision-making. Life in its basic form can be exemplified by the life cycle of a certain species of beetle, which seeks a mimosa tree and ignoring all others, climbs to a branch near whose end it starts to cut a longitudinal groove with its mandible. It lays its eggs under the groove and since it knows that the larvae cannot survive in live wood it retreats a certain distance and starts cutting all around the branch. The branch dies and falls onto the ground thus providing the food for the next-generation beetle. The mimosa tree itself, with this process of annual pruning, lives for a century, but without pruning it can only live for a fraction of that period. In this reflex, approaching decision-making, one recognises the choice of a tree, the active carpentry work, the manner in which the work is carried out, the selection of the correct position of the groove and finally the cut. Moving from animal instinct to human instinct, one recognise the process of decision-making coming into play. At the other end of the scale, the human brain can exemplify decision-making at its best with its capacity and ability for feeling, thought, deliberation reasoning, application, imagination, invention and speech. In fact, for mankind, living is decision-making process and the more complicated the pattern of life, the more complicated is the decision process. To achieve the desired result in each step taken is the goal to which one aspires, but the intention is not always pursued through a well conceived plan and designed strategy. On an ascending scale, but with unacceptable results, one may act without thinking of the consequences, or may give little thought and reasoning to actions which deserve more care and analysis, or may think but ineffectively. The result is sometimes unacceptable or intolerable, and always inferior. If, for one reason or another, the decision made does not result in the anticipated out come, either knowingly or unknowingly, a set of conditions is generated. It remains dormant with the potential for initiating an adverse event, commonly referred to as ‘accident’. The set of conditions, called a ‘hazard’, material is into an event when an activating agent triggers the change, affecting not only the decision-maker, but also others around him. A hazard is not always a man-made event resulting from a decision taken and events may occur due to sets of conditions beyond the control of mankind. These occur in the form of natural events such as earthquakes, rainfall, floods, volcanic eruption, typhoons, etc., referred to as natural hazards.

Modern society and awareness of hazards

The day-to-day activities of some six billion human beings, each different in character ,produce an incredible number of hazards and exposure to hazards which are as complex to identify or predict as is the large number of combinations of all the variable characteristic sand the decisions taken. The inability of human beings to foresee the extent and nature of the effects they create with each decision leads to the two words ‘hazard’ and ‘accident’ being associated with chance. The dictionary definition of hazardous is ‘dependent on chance’ .Awareness in modern society of the hazards around it has reached a significant level in recent times. This awareness occurred as a result of some major accidents in various parts of the world, the consequences of which had a powerful impact on the public mind. The accidents involved high technology industries in the oil, nuclear and chemical fields which fired the imagination of people as to what could happen if the desires of certain sectors of society went ahead unchecked. In more recent times, radio and television, by ease of communication, help to make people dramatically aware of hazards and their effects on people. Society, in general, does not place much significance on single-death incidents whereas it does on potential events in which hundreds of people might die. The definition of hazard is given in British Standard BS No. 4778 as A situation that could occur during the lifetime of a product, system or plant that has the potential for human injury, damage to property, damage to the environment, or economicloss.1Hazards are classified in the same British Standard into four categories:(a) negligible;(b) controlled or marginal;(c) critical;(d) catastrophic. These categories are so designated by the effect produced once the hazard material . Therefore, it is usually assumed that a catastrophic hazard would result in loss of life, personal injury, financial loss, physical or tangible damage and loss of time; a critical hazard.

A hazard or a risk?

The two words ‘hazard’ and ‘risk’ are generally used interchangeably and are sometimes confused with each other. However, there is, in fact, an important and subtle difference between the two words and if the definition of ‘hazard’ is as given earlier, then ‘risk’ is defined in British Standard No. 4778 as A combination of the probability, or frequency, of occurrence of a defined hazard and the magnitude of the consequences of the occurrence.2However, a wider definition and probably more correct is given by Australian/ New Zealand Standard on Risk Management, AS/NZS 3951:1995, which defines risk as inclusive of not only loss or damage, but also gain.3 Therefore, the word ‘hazard’ in the definition given by the British Standard, quoted above, is replaced by a more neutral word such as ‘event’ that may result in a positive or negative consequence. Etymologically, the origin of the English word ‘risk’; or ‘risque’ in French; and ‘rischio’ inItalian is uncertain. In Arabic, there is even confusion as to its real meaning—since some say it simply means ‘danger’—(‘Khattar’ in Arabic), others refer to ‘Rizk’, which signifies what destiny bestows in the future for someone, positive or negative, good or bad; whereas others use it wrongly to mean ‘Gharar’, a forbidden transaction under Islamic law.4 Of course, the latter version cannot be right because if it were so, then a construction contract, which is known to be exposed to a large number of risks, would not be permitted under Islamic law. This simply does not make any sense nor can it be right. The Latin word ‘resecum’ meaning danger’ or ‘rock’ may throw some light on the origin of the word ‘risk’, but the Chinese ‘wejji’ with the characters representing ‘opportunity’ and ‘danger’, is more illustrative of the concept of risk as it applies to the construction industry. two notions embodied in it. It encompasses not only the danger of a loss but also the opportunity of a possible consequent gain when a decision is made. Thus, various cultures and languages viewed risk differently and whereas common usage of the word ‘risk’ in English is reserved for adverse events, from a scientific point of view, it is more sensible to follow the Chinese understanding of the word ‘risk’, as does the Australian/New Zealand Standard on Risk Management, AS/NZS 3951:1995.Where decision-making is concerned, it often, if not always, involves risk-taking. However, the well-informed decision-maker will be aware of the risks associated with any decision and will endeavour to eliminate or reduce all foreseeable risks and their consequences to an acceptable minimum. However, it should be remembered that eliminating risk may mean a huge cost penalty and therefore it should be exercised carefully. In making a decision, an individual may deal with any one of the following possibilities.(a) ‘Pure risk’ where only negative deviations from the desired outcome are possible and therefore danger of loss is predominant; or(b) ‘Speculative risk’ where both negative and positive deviations are possible and therefore there is a danger of loss as well as a chance of gain; or(c) Only positive deviations are anticipated and therefore only a chance of gain exists. Such events do not form part of the notion of risk. Based on the definition of the words ‘hazard’ and ‘risk’ given above, Risk may be expressed in the form of a mathematical equation, as follows: Risk=Probability, or frequency, of the occurrence of a defined event ×Consequences of the occurrence of that event. There are a number of points which flow from the above mathematical expression which are as follows:(a) An undesirable event may have a number of different causative factors, of which one or any combination could lead to its occurrence. For example, if the undesirable event is the collapse of a cofferdam at a construction site, such collapse may have been caused as a result of bad ground conditions, material failure, defective design, or a combination of some or all of these factors. All these factors could be referred to as hazards.(b) An event can, therefore, be construed as a dormant potential for gain or for in convenience, loss, damage to property, damage to the environment, moral damage, injury or loss of life. To eventuate, it is triggered by a particular incident, which may be referred to as a ‘triggering incident’. A triggering incident is usually necessary for an event to take place and material into a positive gain or a negative undesirable consequence. For example, if the cofferdam collapse mentioned in (a) above was due to a defective section in its wall, the triggering incident could be the imposition of an additional loading beyond the limit sustainable by that defective section;(c) The event may result in different levels of magnitude of consequence depending on the particular circumstances and timing of the event itself. For example, the consequence of 28 HAZARDS AND RISKS.

Risks in construction

Based on the statistics gathered in the past three decades on topics, such as disputes in the construction industry and international arbitration,8 accidents at work9 and exposure to natural hazards around the world,10 it can be concluded that construction projects are sensitive to an extremely large matrix of hazards and thus to risks. This sensitivity is due to some of the inherent characteristics of construction projects, which are summarised as follows.

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