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Risk vs. Hazard—What’s the Difference?

Posted on 11/13/2017 by Roger Marks

Lately, international hazmat authorities like International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and International Air Transport Association (IATA) have pushed to standardize the use of two words that are very familiar to dangerous goods professionals: hazard and risk.

To many, these two words may seem interchangeable—in fact, Microsoft Word will offer “risk” as a synonym for “hazard.” Until now, the words have been used interchangeably in international hazmat air regulations like the ICAO Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods (TI) and the IATA DGR.

But in terms of an effective safety management system (SMS) applied to dangerous goods transport, risk and hazard have two distinct meanings. By standardizing the use of these terms, international regulators hope to increase clarity and make it easier for stakeholders to include hazmat safety as part of an SMS.



What is a Hazard? What is Risk?

"Hazard"—with respect to hazmat safety—means a “condition with the potential of causing injuries to personnel, damage to equipment or structures, loss of material, or reduction of ability to perform a prescribed function."  

Risk, on the other hand, is an assessment that considers both the severity and the probability of the possible consequences of a hazard.

We assess risk in these terms every day, even if we don’t know we’re doing it. When we drive on the highway, we’re surrounded by hazards—in the form of large, heavy vehicles moving at a high rate of speed. There are also traffic lights, signs, lines on the road, speed limits, and other laws that reduce the probability of a car accident. We have safety features—namely airbags and seatbelts—that will reduce the severity of an accident that does occur. For these reasons, we don’t generally view driving home for Thanksgiving as a high-risk activity.

That said—do drive safe this holiday season. To read more about hazard and risk, see this paper presented to the UN Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods: "Hazard" vs. "Risk"


Risk and Hazard for DG Shippers

The DOT hazmat regulations are a lot like traffic laws. Like the lights, signs, lines, and speed limits we face as drivers, dangerous goods pros must comply with quantity limits, packaging requirements, segregation and loading rules, hazmat training standards for employees, hazmat route planning, and much more.    

Compliance with these 49 CFR rules limit the probability and severity of a hazmat incident during transport. While they don’t eliminate the hazard of the material, they do mitigate the risk involved in shipping it.

To illustrate the difference between risk and hazard, let’s look at one material—flammable gasoline—in three different scenarios. While the hazard of Class 3 flammable liquid—that it may catch fire—is the same in each case, the scenarios present varying levels of risk.

First, we can imagine a small can of gasoline used to re-fill a lawn mower. The can sits in a tool shed a private citizen's backyard, far from the house. In this scenario, the hazard is that the flammable liquid may catch on fire. The risk in this scenario is very low—the can holds a small volume of material and there is a low probability that the can will set aflame. If the can does set on fire in the tool shed, the worst-case-scenario would be a burned-down shed and some charred grass. Risk: Low

Now let’s imagine that same material, flammable gasoline, in a larger container—a 20-gallon jerrycan. This time, the jerrycan is loaded into the cargo hold of an aircraft for a
transatlantic flight carrying 200 passengers and crew.

The hazard hasn’t changed—the gasoline may still catch fire—but the risk is higher. In this case, the lives of the passenger and crew may be in danger. At the very least, the cargo hold may be damaged and the plane may have to come in for an emergency landing. Risk: High

Last, let’s consider a tanker truck hauling 10,000 gallons of gasoline through a bustling city. Again, the hazard hasn’t changed—the flammable liquid could catch fire—but the risk is without a doubt bigger. If the tank catches fire or explodes, countless people may be injured or killed. The smoke produced by the burning gasoline may sicken or injure hundreds more. And of course, traffic may need to be diverted causing economic impacts. Risk: Severe


Understanding the distinction between hazard and risk—and using these terms consistently, is critical for all hazmat professionals moving forward. As hazmat regulations become more and more harmonized globally, DG professionals worldwide need a common language with which to discuss the challenges they face every day.


49 CFR & IATA DGR Hazmat Training (Ground & Air)

In St. Louis on Dec. 6—8, learn the latest US DOT and International Air Transport Association (IATA) rules for shipping hazmat by ground and air.  You will meet both 49 CFR 172.704 and IATA DGR 1.5 training requirements for hazmat ground and air shipping managers and employees.
Build on your expertise and get up to speed on new and changing rules that will impact your shipments in 2018!


49 CFR, IATA, & IMDG Training (Ground, Air, & Vessel)

Develop or refine your hazmat knowledge and skills at this trusted four-day workshop for hazmat shippers.  Satisfy your hazmat training mandates and get up to date on the latest domestic and international requirements. These workshops will help you avoid mistakes, injuries, rejected shipments, releases in transit, and costly fines from US DOT PHMSA and FAA.


Pittsburgh Dec. 4—7  
Chicago Dec. 11—14

Find out more about the full four-day hazmat shipper program for ground, air, and vessel shippers here. See the full workshop agendas, CEUs offered, and more.  

Tags: 49, CFR, hazmat, hazmat shipping, IATA, ICAO

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