Fifth step in becoming a scientific parent: Do a Risk Assessment

In this series, I will be reviewing the basic concepts in thinking that will help you become more scientific or evidence based in their parenting. 
Many people think that being an evidence based parent means being pro-vaccine or following accepted wisdom (which may not even be scientific) about parenting decisions. I disagree, I believe that being an evidence based parent refers to applying a scientific method of thinking to your parenting decisions, that includes looking at the evidence on parenting objectively. 
This does not mean you always have to do what the science says, but accepting what the science says and considering it alongside your own personal beliefs and circumstances is essential to being an evidence-based parent.

One of the greatest struggles in parenthood is the appropriate and reasonable response to risk. There are a number of good reasons for this - our children are precious to us and we want to protect them against everything. People have a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events that are rare but highly memorable such as an airplane crash, death from a rare disease or the kidnapping of a child by a stranger. People also tend to accept a much lower degree of risk for events that are out of their control than they do for things that are within their control 1. This results in the over-removal of possible hazards with a resulting loss of associated benefits and increase in other risks due to loss of skills. The answer to this is not to blithely throw your child skill-less into a world of fast cars and fires but to be more scientific in your risk assessments.
Risk assessment is a systematic approach to hazard identification and control. It can help you identify what elements of an activity can cause injury and provide methods in which to make it safer. Your goal in a risk assessment is not to totally avoid a risk but rather to bring it down to a manageable level.

These are the steps to follow.
1. Identify the hazard. When looking at the hazard involved with an activity you need to think about the people involved, the equipment they are using, the materials used and the environment that it is taking place in 3,
2. How severe the harm could be. Keep in mind that harms may occur immediately or make time to become apparent.

  • What sort of harm could occur? We often consider only physical risks but psychological and social risks should also be considered. 
  •  How severe is it? Could it cause death, serious injuries, illness or only minor injuries requiring first aid. 
  • What factors could influence the severity of the harm? 
3. How likely is it to occur. This step is the most difficult to do. Human nature is to overestimate the likelihood of an event that was particularly tragic - kidnappings or child murder by a stranger for example are far rarer than most people think.  In order to prevent your risk assessment being thrown off by emotions or the details of a particularly tragic isolated event it is best to obtain the actual figures where possible. If this is not possible, impartially consider the following
  • How often is the task done? Does this make the harm more or less likely. 
  • How often is your child near the hazard? 
  •  Has the even ever occurred before? How often? 

You can rate the likelihood as one of the following:

  • Certain to occur - expected to occur in most circumstances
  • Very likely - will probably occur in most circumstances
  • Possible - might occur occasionally
  • Unlikely - could happen at some time
  • Rare- May happen only in exceptional circumstances.

In order to be adequately assessed, these three factors need to be combined in order to consider whether it is necessary to use a control measure. The below graph from For the Science does a great job of illustrating the combined effect.
The combined effect is used to determine what course of action you should make. If the risk falls into the safe zone it can reasonably be ignored, if it is the control zone it should be kept under observation while an item with the danger zone will require some sort of action  3.

3. Work out a control measure. Your goal in a control measure is not to make the hazard completely risk free but to bring it into at least the control zone. The most effective measure is obviously totally eliminating the hazard and its associated risk. However many things that appear to be hazard, have benefits and may even reduce risk down the track. For example, a swimming pool has a real risk of drowning and you could avoid this risk by ensuring your child is never exposed to one (or any other large body of water), however this would prevent them from developing swimming skills, a lack of swimming skills could affect them socially throughout their life and could also place them in serious danger later in their life.
A risks which has an associated benefit, should be dealt with via other safety measures to bring it to a reasonable level in relation to anticipated benefits.
 Ways to do this include:

  •  substitution of the product for something safer
  • Reducing the amount of exposure your child gets through the hazard
  • Using other equipment to reduce the risk
  • Using supervision to reduce the risk
  • Providing personal protective equipment 4


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