Home Features Health and safety The bowtie method

David Cant discusses how a simple, well-recognised strategy can help assess and manage health and safety needs in the workplace.

If we’re looking to drive workplace accidents ever closer to the zero option we may need to take a closer look at the way risk is identified and managed.

That’s never going to be a one-off employee awareness-raising exercise because familiarity can frequently lead to a cutting of corners or a basic flouting of the rules. It’s just human nature.

Safety in potentially complex scenarios can be simplifi ed for ease of understanding, with diagrams helping to identify areas that need attention, and this is where the Bowtie Method can assist your organisation.

This bowtie is a diagram first used on a company training course in Australia 40 years ago. The fact that it has crossed time and distance to be with us today is an indicator of its effectiveness.

Shaping up for effective risk assessment
The Bowtie Method takes its name from the shape of a diagram created when a scenario is described and analysed in diagram form.

It puts the ‘top event’ as a result of the hazard at the centre of the bow. At the left are the threats of which could lead to the event; at the right, its consequences. Creating the diagram does two things. It offers a visual summary of all potential incidents associated with a given hazard and defines what an organisation does to control those scenarios by putting in place barriers to unsafe operation.

But just as no gentleman’s wardrobe is complete with just one bowtie, risk management is not complete with just one bowtie diagram. Once the barriers are identified, the bowtie method probes them to identify the ways in which they too might fail. These circumstances are called escalation factors.

By examining the relationship between barriers and their escalation factors, it’s possible to see how a safety system might be weakened. Think of the Swiss cheese effect, when the holes line up and effectively remove the safeguards around a particular process.

But let’s not mix our imagery. The basic bowtie diagram needs to be integrated into a holistic safety management system, where it can provide an overview of what activities keep a barrier working, and who is responsible for maintaining that barrier.

But don’t give responsibility for anything to individuals without also passing on its bedfellow, the authority over it.

By offering both, ownership and empowerment are conferred on the ndividual, and a more effective safeguard will result because employee mindset will have been changed.

Whether you are working on complex work activity or routine risk management tasks, a bowtie will come in very handy.

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