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Assessing risk in engineering, work and life
Assessing risk in engineering, work and life

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1 Risk and why it is important

Risk is a word that seems to be ever-present in the language of both the engineering profession and the general public. It is a word of such common usage that people tend to assume that they know its meaning.

  • Before continuing, write down your own definition of risk.

  • The Oxford English Dictionary (2016) gives many definitions of risk. For example, the definitions of ‘risk’ as a noun include:

    • The possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen.
    • A person or thing regarded as a threat or likely source of danger.

    But also, perhaps more interestingly, the definitions of ‘risk’ as a verb include:

    • Act in such a way as to bring about the possibility of (an unpleasant or unwelcome event).
    • Incur the chance of unfortunate consequences by engaging in (an action).

Risk is something that is accepted as part of everyday life. The safety that people seek is constantly balanced against the benefits that they desire, which come with an associated risk. Perhaps a good example here is driving. All drivers think of their driving as safe, but most drivers have performed an overtaking or other manoeuvre which, in retrospect, would be considered ‘risky’. This section investigates how engineers can identify, assess and manage risks, and looks at what part they play in this process.