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Written by
on 09 September 2019


Driving workplace accidents ever-closer to the zero option requires a change of mindset about the way risk is identified and managed.

That’s never going to be a one-off employee awareness-raising exercise because familiarity is always likely to lead to contempt; a cutting of corners, or a basic flouting of the rules. It’s human nature.

That’s why safety in potentially-complex scenarios needs to be simplified for ease of understanding, which in turn is where diagrams can be enormously helpful, and why your organisation probably needs a bowtie.

This is not a tie in the conventional ‘white tie and tails’ sartorial elegance sense of the word. Why would it be? This is a blog about risk assessment and its contribution to workplace safety.

This bowtie is a diagram first used on an ICI training course in Australia 40 years ago; 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:

  • Offers a visual summary of all potential incidents associated with a given hazard
  • 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, so 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.

Without wishing to get into too much detail in a blog post – there simply isn’t room – the circumstances which might barrier failure might occur are called escalation factors.

By examining the relationship between barriers and their escalation factors, it’ 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 here’s a word of caution: 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 individual, and a more effective safeguard will result because employee mindset will have been changed.

We’re here to help

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

To find out how highly effective Bowtie diagrams can be for managing your workplace risks better and reduce the chances of incidents in your workplace, please get in touch.

A chartered (fellow) safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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