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DJ Risk and MC Hazard

October 6th 2016

Hazard and risk are not (surprisingly) a drum & bass duet, as the title suggests. The terms, “hazard” and “risk” are ones we all come across on a regular basis, but many people find the two difficult to define or differentiate.

In health and safety, “hazard” and “risk” have established meanings (although these meanings are not clearly defined in law).

A “hazard” is anything that has the potential to cause harm. We normally class things like vehicular traffic, working at height and falling objects as “hazards”.

“Risk” is the likelihood (or the chance) of something bad happening – so working on a ladder is riskier than working on a secure scissor lift platform or a well-erected scaffold. By the same token, Giant hogweed growing in a kids’ playground would pose more of a risk than Giant hogweed growing in a remote mountain pass.

Most people would agree that working at the top of a long ladder (e.g. cleaning windows) would be more “hazardous” than working in areas where Giant hogweed is present – because the consequences of falling off the ladder would be more severe.

However, without protective equipment, there is a very good chance that anyone working directly with Giant hogweed would suffer significant or severe burns on day one; whereas many window cleaners work up-and-down long ladders day after day without coming to harm.

We would explain this by saying that working with Giant hogweed is a “high-risk” activity and working on top of a ladder is a “high-hazard” activity. Both activities would need some level of control to protect the health and safety of employees.

At the other end of the scale, “low hazard” activities include working at a desk in an office, and “low-risk” activities include, well… if you read the papers, you would probably believe that nothing was “low-risk”… but again, it’s office workers who generally come out best.

That’s not to say that working in an office doesn’t have its safety issues, but in the grand scheme of things, these are relatively minor in comparison.

In order to compare risks, we use a risk assessment – which almost everyone will have come across at some point. Generally, health and safety practitioners assign a rating to a workplace hazard by combining the severity of the hazard and the likelihood (the risk) to give a number or a rating (e.g. low, medium, high etc.) that describes the level of danger. This can then be used to determine what issues need to be addressed in order to manage the health and safety of our workforce.

The invasive weed industry has very particular challenges – especially when working in dangerous areas like riverbanks or construction sites – but the risk assessment process is relevant (and legally required) for the all businesses in the UK (even ones where everyone works in an office!).

What Are EU Looking At?

A similar “risk assessment” approach is used to manage the regulation of pesticides by the European Union. Despite the recent Brexit vote, this is legislation that is likely to govern the UK for some time to come.

In the past, the EU managed pesticides by looking at the “risk” of harm caused by the chemicals. In a nutshell, if the risk could be managed to a low level using suitable controls, then a pesticide would generally be approved for use. This is what’s known as a “risk-based” approach.

However, in 2009 (when EU regulation 1107/2009 was introduced to replace regulation 414/1991), this risk-based approach was abandoned in favour of a “hazard-based approach”.

The “hazard-based approach” means that wherever a pesticide has the potential to cause significant harm – regardless of the controls that are in place – it will be removed from use (or will not be approved for future use).

It is this new approach which has seen UK farmers lose over half of all the active substances registered for use in the UK

While the removal of any potentially harmful products is a noble ideal, and means that EU pesticide controls are the tightest in the world, I feel that it is not always giving the best results, when we balance it with the needs of agriculture, industry and amenity (which is not to say “for business”, because all the above provide countless benefits for normal people).

A more nuanced approach could yield better results, and this zero tolerance approach is inconsistent with the comparatively lax approach to air pollution, fossil and nuclear power generation, fishing and other potentially harmful industrial pollutants.

The latest pesticides in the firing line are those which have been defined as “Endocrine Disruptors”, which the EU is proposing to ban in all but the products with the very lowest categorisation.

One of the problems with this is that it is very hard to define an endocrine disruptor. The term means “something that interferes with the hormone system” – and at its broadest definition, means any chemical which can interfere with the hormone system “at any dose”. This covers a lot of chemicals – both naturally occurring and artificial.

The EU definition is “an exogenous [non-naturally occuring] substance or mixture that alters function(s) of the endocrine system and consequently causes adverse health effects in an intact organism, or its progeny, or (sub)populations”. However, no formal criteria have been established for identifying substances with endocrine disrupting properties.

Endocrine disruptors can potentially cause cancer, developmental problems and birth defects and therefore we are right to limit and control their use. In certain cases a ban is absolutely the right thing to do, and was implemented long before we looked at endocrine disruptors as a class of chemicals (e.g. thalidomide and the herbicide 2,4,5-T – which appeared in Agent Orange).

On the other hand, there is an argument that for many potential endocrine disruptors, humans are not exposed to doses which could cause this kind of problem – and furthermore, that under proper usage, the products are essentially safe.

What’s more, reading the list of problems doesn’t give us the full picture of the kind of chemical’s we’re dealing with. Alcohol is an endocrine disruptor. Should we ban that? Alcohol causes thousands of deaths per year in the UK and can’t even be said to have measurable benefits… However, nobody within the EU legislature is calling to ban it (so far as I am aware).

To take the hazard-based model even further to its extreme (and please forgive the borrowing of this example from a corner of the internet): consider dihydrogen monoxide – which at the right levels can cause temporary personality changes, brain damage, seizures, coma and death; surely that should be banned under a hazard based approach?

Well, no; not really. Dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, water.

How about petrol, which can cause birth defects? Again, no. At present, we implement a variety of measures to limit exposure, and importantly, there is not a safer alternative to the product, so to immediately withdraw petrol would be counterbalanced by a loss of services which in many cases are vital for people’s health.

This is what we should really come down to: the approach taken by health and safety professionals across the world, which is to minimise the risks so far as reasonably practicable, and to balance risks with benefits.

I am not a researcher into endocrine disruption, and I am not a Eurocrat with the responsibility of making decisions which affect the lives of millions of people across the EU. However, it seems to me that there is something wrong with our approach to agriculture and amenity when the only legislation being put in place is to ban the available chemistry and all the while, farmers’ gate prices are being driven down and budgets are being cut in vital areas like highway maintenance.

Brexit will potentially give the UK a chance to re-assess these restrictions; I think it is an opportunity that we should take. We should look at measured, balanced actions with safeguarding health as the primary focus.

What to Do?

My personal opinion is that the hazard-based approach is appropriate for the regulation of sales to private individuals – people who are not required to undergo any form of training to apply herbicides on their own property and who aren’t really subject to scrutiny or legal action. This approach has gone a long way to ensuring that people who don’t know any better are not likely to cause an environmental incident with over-the-counter pesticides.

A hazard-based approach might also be appropriate where the effects of a substance are not fully known and/or where the pesticides are applied to food crops. While the jury is still out, and the evidence is not conclusive either way, I personally think that the EU approach to neonicotinoid pesticides (a temporary ban on use) is also correct. Should these pesticides be proved safe for the environment, they can always be re-licensed in future…

A more risk-based approach would be appropriate for the use of pesticides by trained individuals, including farmers, foresters, greenkeepers and other amenity practitioners – because these are trained users, using products regularly under controlled conditions, subject to various legal measures and scrutiny.

Since November 2015, all professional pesticides must legally be sold to and used by only qualified operatives – and anyone applying professional products without a licence can be prosecuted.

The purchasers of food crops (a large portion of which are supermarkets) have very exacting standards and regularly test for pesticide residues – rejecting any produce which does not measure up.

It is reasonable to expect that professional herbicides are not just being sprayed willy-nilly about our city streets and round the countryside (despite a few local contractors who still don’t seem to understand how to apply glyphosate-based herbicides).

When a trained individual is acting for a company who can demonstrate a level of competence above and beyond the minimum legal requirement – someone like an INNSA member, who subscribes to a strict Code of Practice and who meets the Amenity Assured Standard – the risks are much different to other operators who may not meet such high standards.

The authorities (both in the EU and the UK) have the ability to licence products for use in certain fields and not in others (so something could be used in amenity settings, but not on food crops) and this approach should be used more often.

There is also no reason not to attach strings to the more hazardous approved chemicals. If their use is determined to be important enough and low-risk enough to warrant their use, government could (if it chose to) put a premium on their price to allow for the implementation of rigorous monitoring and testing of sites on which they are used.

There is every reason to control the use of pesticides, which in all cases are dangerous (if only to their target pests). However, there are also flip-sides to the coin. In a world which is going to depend increasingly on intensive farming and low-carbon supply chains (meaning local-grown foods), we can’t simply ban all pesticides overnight in the same way that we can’t just immediately stop using petrol or diesel.

Unlike fuels, where alternatives are already on the market (although not so widely available), we are rapidly approaching the point where we have banned all of our tools with no realistic alternatives.

Chris Oliver, TechIOSH, MBATR (Invasive and Injurious Weeds)
Operations Manager, Japanese Knotweed Solutions Limited