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Controlling your risk by Bob Carruth

As Risk Control Manager for the NCACC, Bob Carruth manages the operation of the Risk Control Team for the Risk Management Pools. The team assists members with development of safety policies and programs and identification of liability exposures and controls. Carruth is a Certified Safety Professional and is certified as an Associate – Risk Management.  For archives of this column click here

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May 29

Risk Assessment – An Important Piece of the Puzzle

Posted on May 29, 2013 at 10:06 AM by Chris Baucom

In 1996, Timothy McVeigh used 2.4 tons of ammonium nitrate mixed with diesel fuel and other materials to destroy the federal building in Oklahoma City.  In Texas City, Texas in 1947, the amount of energy released from a 2300 ton ammonium nitrate explosion on a docked ship resulted in the worst industrial accident in US history.  Over 500 people were killed, including the entire crew of the ship and all but one of the local Texas City Fire Department. 

On April 18th, the West Fertilizer Company in West Texas experienced a fire, followed by an explosion of an estimated 270 tons of ammonium nitrate.  Hundreds have been killed or injured, and as of the writing of this article, the investigation is still not complete.  What is known is this – many of the dead were first responders fighting the initial blaze, as well as residents of a nearby nursing home and apartment complex, both of which should have probably not been that close to the plant to begin with.  

Debate has just begun on how to prevent something like this from occurring again, and will continue for many months and years to come.  From initial impressions, it appears that somewhere along the line communications broke down that resulted in the first responders putting themselves in harm’s way to fight a fire in what was a very volatile environment.  
Local governments are the providers of services to the public.  Some of these services are rather quiet and do not warrant a lot of concern about risks they face.  Some employees, however, to include the public safety practitioners in our EMS, fire, and law enforcement, put their lives on the line daily by going to the hazards, not staying away from them.   

Many of the largest and most grievous losses involving public sector employees come from the three groups mentioned above.  A deputy serving a warrant gets shot, and ends up paralyzed.  A paramedic treating a car crash victim in an ice storm is crushed between the car and a guardrail, resulting in the amputation of both legs.  Firefighters enter a facility, only to be confronted with a massive explosion that takes their lives.  These are but a few examples of the hundreds of incidents that occur throughout our country annually.

The easy way out is to say “this is the cost of keeping the public safe” – in some ways it is, and just as the combat soldier’s job is to “close in and make contact with the enemy”, it does not excuse us as leaders from taking those steps needed to make the work environment as safe as possible for our public safety practitioners. 

Even before the investigation is complete, there is one thing I see that is a takeaway from the events that occurred in West, Texas last month; that is the importance of completing a comprehensive, organization wide risk assessment for our public safety services.  This involves identifying the possible risks an organization faces, evaluating those risks as to the frequency of an incident occurring, and if it does occur, what would be the severity and consequences of that event.  

Identifying the risks your organization faces involves more than one person.  To be effective, you should both broaden the assessment by including more people in the process, while also narrowing your focus to individual activities, programs, or functions.  In regards to public safety areas, you must also understand that most of your risk will come from outside, not inside the organization.  One good process that already exists for this is the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC), which periodically reviews the emergency plans of local industries and makes sure that any emergency involving those enterprises can be addressed.

Once the risks have been identified, they should be prioritized.  In a perfect world (I haven’t found it yet), we would have all the resources needed to eliminate or control every risk; however, this is not the reality we face in our organizations.  Given this, a simple matrix should be developed that categorizes the risks by the potential for occurrence, and if the risk event does occur, what would be the consequences of that event.  Once this step has been completed, then decisions can be made as to eliminating or controlling the highest risks that have been identified. 

The final stage is the response.  If a risk event does occur, do you have a plan to respond to the event, which includes the resources needed?  Have you trained and practiced the response for the particular event?  As part of this training, does each of your employees understand the “why” of the event, and how to ensure her personal safety in the absence of any direct guidance or supervision?   

Overarching this whole risk assessment process, if done properly, will be the evolution of a culture of safety, where working safely and with risk in mind becomes an organizational value.  Until safety ceases to be a task to be performed, and becomes the environment in which we do our jobs on a daily basis, our work is not complete.  

If you are interested in hearing more about how our risk control team can help you in performing a risk assessment in your organization, let us know.  We will be eager to assist you!