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Author: Dr Andrew Brookes, Adjunct Associate Professor, La Trobe University
Some approaches to safety and risk management consider risk to be a combination of a potential for harm (for example scalding injury) and likelihood.
A risk matrix is one tool intended to aid estimation of risk. In the financial sector, for example, risk matrices can be useful because losses can be quantifiable and probability of loss might be calculable. For bushwalking safety risk matrices are much less useful, except as an aid to discussion early in the planning process.
Risk matrices can be used to identify trivial risks which require no more thought, and critical risks which rule a proposed trip out entirely, but must otherwise be regarded cautiously. The expectation that a risk matrix can assess “all risks” is plainly impossible.
A systems approach does not automatically lead to accident prevention. Reliance on a system is not a substitute for and will not address safety if the individuals using the system lack the required knowledge, experience, expertise and judgement.
For hazards with potential to cause serious harm, the focus of safety must be on understanding potentially dangerous circumstances and on available prevention measures, even though serious adverse situations are relatively uncommon.
Although freak accidents can occur, most deaths and serious injuries involving bushwalking are neither random, nor unpreventable. Prevention can require measures to be in place for dangerous situations which occur only rarely.
Most hazards for bushwalkers are circumstantial. For example, most of the time, in the course of a bushwalk, there would be no chance of a scalding injury, but situations can arise where a scalding injury is possible or even imminent. It is helpful to focus on avoiding such situations, even though, overall, scalding injuries are uncommon.
Surf lifesaving provides an example of how circumstantial prevention works. While a novice might regard drowning as a low probability but serious risk at a surf beach, an expert can identify fixed hazards such as reefs and permanent rips, ephemeral or periodic hazards associated with tides and swells, and can also identify which individuals are at risk from a potential hazard. A rip might be life-threatening for weak swimmers venturing into the waves, while providing a surfer with assistance getting out beyond the break.
Not all hazards can be completely prevented, and experienced individuals might decide to accept some risk of serious harm in order to achieve a desired goal, but that should not be confused with failing to take available prevention measures because an adverse event was thought unlikely.