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What If: Small Words That Have Big Potential

Aug 28, 2020
Young Black professional woman contemplating ideas

It’s common to look back on a situation and ask yourself, “What if . . . ?”

But for most safety professionals, asking “what if” is a forward-looking activity that can help uncover hazards that lead to worker injuries and illnesses. In fact, the what-if method has long been used in the chemical industry to analyze process hazards, and it’s also widely applied in industries such as energy, manufacturing, food processing and healthcare.

In traditional application of the method, a cross-functional team breaks an activity or system into its various tasks/elements, then brainstorms all the ways things could go wrong in a given scenario. The process is easy to use and an effective way to help the employees involved develop deeper insight about the activity or system assessed.

Add Power to Your What-If Analysis With Risk Assessment

While what-if analysis can help you uncover hazards, the traditional method doesn’t include risk assessment steps. This shortcoming is addressed briefly in ISO 31010:2019, Risk Management - Risk Assessment Techniques. The standard suggests teams use a more structured process to summarize and describe the risk, its causes, consequences and expected controls.

In “The Power of What If: Assessing and Understanding Risk,” published in the June 2020 issue of Professional Safety, Bruce Lyon and Georgi Popov propose a model you can use to enhance your what-if analysis — it's called structured what-if risk assessment (SWIFRA). In addition to asking what-if questions, this approach calls on your team to ask questions that explore how and why the consequences are possible. Doing so helps reveal systemic causal factors that create the hazards and risks.

The first step in the process is to select specific consequences to analyze. Then, the team estimates the severity, likelihood and risk level of each consequence, and compares those estimates with established risk criteria to determine acceptability and identify required action.

Here’s the eight-step model Lyon and Popov suggest for conducting a SWIFRA:

  1. Develop the what-if questions. Conduct research (e.g., document reviews, interviews, observations) to develop a list of valid and relevant what-if questions to uncover possible problems in the system.
  2. Create a spreadsheet. Use this tool to document the process and capture results.
  3. Answer the what-if, how and why questions. Repeated the rounds as long as they remain productive.
  4. Identify existing controls. Document these controls in your spreadsheet.
  5. Analyze risk. Estimate likelihood, severity and risk level.
  6. Evaluate risk. Use established risk criteria to determine if the risk is acceptable or if additional measures are required.
  7. Add controls. Apply the hierarchy of controls to implement additional controls.
  8. Analyze risk reduction. Once new controls are installed, reassess the risk and project a risk reduction factor.

Tools like what-if analysis and its evolution to SWIFRA can help you assess and communicate risks so your organization can take action to eliminate hazards and protect workers.

Related Links
ANSI/ASSP/ISO Risk Management Standards
Risk Assessment: Online Course
The Power of What If: Assessing and Understanding Risk

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