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How Modern HazCom Safety Can Benefit From Age-Old Risk Management Tactics

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) may be over five decades old, but that’s still quite young when you put it into a historical context. After all, people have been thinking about workplace safety for thousands of years. And many contemporary concepts, from risk perception to safety culture, have roots that extend deep into the past.

According to a new article in OHS magazine, the word “risk” derives from ancient Latin words like “risco” (as well as similar Greek terms like “rhizikon”), which refers to reefs and other maritime hazards. The author of the article, Ray Prest, argues that the classical words for risk were “useful to sailors because it took something that was hidden and made it more conceptually visible.” Clearly, everything old is new again, as there is a distinct connection between old maritime dangers and contemporary HazCom safety—beginning with the challenges of complacency.

Prest says that one outcome of constantly working in potentially dangerous situations is that “very real hazards can stop appearing dangerous.” Whether it’s the dangers of open water or the threat of hazardous chemicals, there is a strong likelihood that habituation can reduce the perceived risk of harm. As a result, workers may begin to see a hazard not as a source of potential harm but rather as a mundane feature of their work environment.

It’s no secret that complacency is a big problem for HazCom compliance. Fortunately, the problem’s historical roots can also offer some historical remedies. Prest points out that classical Mediterranean sailors couldn’t rely on technological solutions, and they couldn’t rely entirely on individual solutions either because they were all, quite literally, in the same boat. Any given major hazard was “a shared feature of their workplace. The dangers it posed were collective, and so their response to it had to be equally collective.”

This means that frontline leaders need to keep their crews’ attention focused on the hazards, and, in the case of HazCom, on the importance of safety labels and other features. It’s also important to foster a sense of collective responsibility and look out for each other. This means having workplace supervisors who are safety-focused and have the resources they need to keep their people safe.

The entire article on navigating HazCom and workplace safety is well worth a read. Consider taking five minutes to review it, as it just might help you chart a course to safer waters.

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