Anticipating Objections to risk assessments

Anticipating Objections to risk assessments

May 20th, 2020

Anticipating Objections to risk assessments is paramount to foster social licence to operate (SLO) and corporate social responsibility (CSR). The first step is to avoid any suspicion of conflict of interest.

Anticipating Objections to risk assessments

Indeed, risk assessments should be performed by an independent entity (Brehaut, 2017, UNEP). That is to avoid conflict of interest (Oboni, Zabolotoniuk, 2013) and assuage public concerns. Nevertheless, the proponent of a project might feel vulnerable if that information becomes public.

Thus, today we discuss how to help remove possible objections and ultimately foster SLO and CSR by applying a mix of technical and soft concepts and skills.

Always define the Success metric and the glossary

The glossary and failure metric need clear definitions in order to avoid plunging into a state of confusion from the first contact with the public. For example, if a dam “survives” a given hazard but the water source for the local population is contaminated, does this constitute a tailings dam failure? Too often we have seen a failure considered only when a dam is breached.  Other times engineers looked only at the stability, disregarding other issues, forgetting the system’s success metric.

Oroville water dam example

The point made in the prior section became obvious with the Oroville dam forensic analysis that stated:

“The Independent Forensic Team reportedly formed the impression that most DWR staff and those involved in the Potential Failure Modes Analysis (PFMA) studies considered the use of the emergency spillway in terms of only an “extreme” flood event. The Independent Forensic Team notes that a “1 in 100” year storm might be considered an “extreme” event in an operational sense. However, from a dam safety viewpoint an “extreme” dam safety would be a much larger storm.”

This was again an example of unclear glossary and definitions which lead to misleading evaluations of risks.

Indeed, as the Oroville report states, failure modes can vanish from detailed considerations simply because of the specific definition of “failure”. In our practice we always start a risk assessment by defining:

Coal ash failure example

On 2014, Feb. 2 in North Carolina, a coal ash spilled about 82,000 short tons [74,400 t] of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons [100,000 m3] of contaminated water caused by a collapse of an old drainage pipe under a 27-acre ash waste pond.

Even thus we find this event in numerous tailings dam failure database it is not the dam that failed but the system. How many risk assessments focus on the dam and conveniently forget that pipes, underground cavities and other ancillary facilities can as well fail? The results of such studies are misleading and unrealistic at best.

Clearly state types of consequence and how they combine

Going back in time, in 2013 we stated that: “Especially for very large projects, risk assessments generally consider too simplistic consequences and ignore “indirect/life-changing” effects on population and other social aspects”. We noted that simplistic consequences are misleading, unrealistic and can significantly affect SLO and CSR.

Using conceptually sound risk assessment methodologies allows to consider the wide uncertainties surrounding failures driving parameters and related additive dimensions of consequences.

The usual dimensions of consequences we include in ORE deployments are:

  • human H&S (health and safety),
  • fish, fauna and top-soil/vegetation,
  • long term economic and development, and finally,
  • social impacts.

These dimensions are additive, not stand-alone items, and can possibly merge into one metric, while preserving the inevitable uncertainties.

Going into more details on dimensions evaluations, we can cite:

  • Extent of damage as expressed in fatalities, casualties, business interruption etc.,
  • Geographic dispersion of damage
  • Duration of the damage
  • Reversibility of the damage (or perpetual loss?)
  • Latency between an accident and the occurrence of its damages and finally
  • Social impacts (inequity/injustice, psychological stress and discomfort, conflicts and mobilization, spillover effects).

Closing remarks to Anticipating Objections to risk assessments

Anticipating Objections to risk assessments, planning activity, whether tactical or strategic, should be based on risk assessments performed by neutral parties that do not have even remote conflicts of interest with the proponent and designers.

Furthermore, Anticipating Objections to risk assessments requires at least a clear definition of:

  • Glossary,
  • System,
  • Failure,
  • Multidimensional additive consequences with their uncertainties,
  • Probabilities of failure expressed with their uncertainties and finally,
  • Using transparent, proven methodologies which can incorporate societal and corporate risk tolerance.

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Category: Consequences, Risk analysis, Risk management, Tolerance/Acceptability

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