The 5 Ways We Identify Hazards

by Dr Rob Long on November 12, 2015

in Psychology of Safety and Risk,Robert Long

The 5 Ways We Identify Hazards – Updated

Nuclear futureHazards are objects and in themselves don’t harm anyone. An object only becomes a hazard when a human engages with it, until then it remains a potential hazard. One can focus as much on displacement of energies and damaging energies as one wants but unless there is some understanding about human judgment and decision making the object remains a neutral object until a human engages with it.

So, by what criteria and intelligence do we identify hazards?

The first way we identify hazards is by history. We gain information from past events and know what has harmed someone in the past and usually develop standards and regulations around such learnings. Unfortunately we often learn by trial and error.

The second way we learn to identify hazards is by standards, legislation and regulation however, these two are primarily historical in nature.

The third way we identify hazards is by some form of experience and/or training. Usually, we have either witnessed or experienced a near miss or injury and develop a feeling for the risk associated with engaging with a particular hazard eg. driving, speed, electricity, fuel.

The fourth way we identify hazards is through imagination, visualization and experimentation. Often with a new object, event or activity we simply do not know what hazards are associated with it or, can’t imagine the by-products associated with its activation. When this is the case the best we can do is drill back into our memory and try and associate similar hazards and risks through our imagination.

The fifth way we identify hazards is by understanding human judgment and decision making, this provides a basis with which to better imagine the ways humans will behave and make decisions in an activity or in engagement with an object.

The problem then exists with which form of identification we direct the most energy. Do we put enough energy into the fourth and fifth methods of hazard identification, I can’t see the evidence for this, if anything, we seem to continually emphasize methods 1, 2 and 3 and methods 4 and 5 seem to come a poor last.


Since this article was published, 2 years ago, Rob has produced this excellent short video (below) explaining hazard identification and risk management in the context of Workspace, Headspace and Groupspace. This video has been very very well received across the safety and risk industry.

Please take the time to watch this short video because it could be the best 11 minutes 20 seconds you have spent on safety and risk in a very long time!!!

More information on this concept here:

Workspace, Headspace, Groupspace from Human Dymensions

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.
  • Jim Chambers

    One of my personal goals this year is to learn about risk assessment. The video helped pull a few different ideas together for me, thanks!

    • Thanks Jim – let us know if there is anything else we can help you with or find here – there is lots more useful info to be found – keep digging 🙂

  • Sando, a condition or event is also a tangible object, something we can see, objectify and document. Hazards in many senses are artifacts of culture. My point is this, that it is more of what can’t see that is the greatest concern in risk and safety and the sector, by and large, has little focus on the non-rational non-material issues associated with risk and safety. There is next to no discussion on social psychological factors, imagination, intuition, heuristics or non-material factors associated with risk and hazard identification and management.

  • Sando Rothman

    Agree on the basic sentiments of your article. However, I think that you can expand on your statement that “hazards are objects” they can also be events or conditions.

  • Sando, I don’t quite understand, is it a disagreement or agreement with the sentiments of the article? How does it work if we call people hazards?

  • Sando Rothman

    Don’t agree that only objects are hazards. A person can be a hazard or the way you do something can be a hazard. You have made something that should be a straight forward task sound quite technical. In saying that, understand that people have differing ways of seeing and doing things but doesn’t it mainly come down to the person’s individual willingness to take on risk in turn influencing the identification of hazards or lack of thereof? (5th way)

  • It’s there George, that’s what I started the post grad studies for. Imagination and visualisation can be learned and requires practice but needs a culture that wants it. Many organisational cultures squash it.

  • One often finds one gets technical OHS issues right but stuffs up the people issues. Wouldn’t it be great to get some education on how to understand our fellow human beings

  • Great points Dave, but then most of our knowledge is what has happened in the past, not just H&S but nearly every topic.

    It would be great if everyone (or at least all H&S professionals) had the capability of imagination and foresight, but this is not a natural talent for most folk – it has to be learnt, often by experience or mentoring and rarely taught during our development as H&S professionals.

    You deserve a huge thank you for bringing this necessary talent to the fore, I for one will remember to look with imagination and foresight at the new activity / equipment and also judge how folk are going to interact with it!

  • Cezary Giluk

    Very good.

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