De-Mystifying Dynamic Risk Assessment

Published On: 20 February 2023

Life is full of risk – that’s a fact. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are constantly looking out for danger, evaluating the likelihood of harm, and taking action to keep ourselves and others safe. For example, deciding when to cross a busy road; turning off the iron at the wall; ensuring our child gets home safely after a party; or locking the doors before bed. From the minute we wake up in the morning, to the minute we go to sleep at night, we are engaged in this risk assessment process, albeit predominantly on a subconscious, automatic level.

When bringing dynamic risk assessments into our professional settings, however, we pull this process up from our subconscious to our conscious mind, so that we can take deliberate, intentional action in the moment and make sure individuals in our care are kept safe from harm.

What is a dynamic risk assessment?

A dynamic risk assessment is simply a term for the ‘live’ process of identifying, measuring and evaluating potential risk. It requires us to think on our feet, quickly assess what or who may cause harm to an individual, measure the severity of that harm, then take appropriate action to avoid or minimise it. Unlike formal, written risk assessments, dynamic risk assessments happen in real time, as a response to unforeseen or rapidly changing events.

Time pressure and a multitude of variables can, of course, affect our responses and, if a situation is changing second-by-second, we cannot expect to have all of the facts at our fingertips. Instead, we need to make a best-fit judgement using any information we do have about the individual and the environment at that time.

Dynamic risk assessment is never black or white

Take the following scenario, for instance. What would you do?

An individual in your care is trying to jump over a wall. Do you stop them, follow them, or let them jump?

Faced with this situation, dozens of questions might spring up in your mind: how high is the wall? What’s on the other side? How close is the individual? Can I reach them before they jump? What’s the risk to them if they do? Will it be more harmful to try and stop them?

In events of this nature, there’s no time to go and consult a formal risk assessment; you have to weigh up the balance of risk posed by each option and take decisive action immediately. As you can see, it’s not a clear-cut case, and there is no right or wrong answer, but it is reflective of the kinds of situations you might find yourself in on a regular basis.

Context is key

As with most things in life, context is everything. In scenarios such as the one above, we need to consider what we already know about the individual, as this will inform our judgement and affect the action we do (or don’t) take.

We can ask ourselves questions like:

  • What do I know about this person?
  • Have they displayed this sort of behaviour before?
  • What was the outcome last time?

Furthermore, if the incident occurs within our professional setting, the likelihood is there is already a formal risk assessment in place that covers this eventuality. The question for us as practitioners is: how can I draw on this to inform my decision?

When do we make dynamic risk assessments?

Unlike formal, written risk assessments, dynamic risk assessments are made in the following instances:

  • When working in developing situations
  • When conditions have changed
  • During an unforeseen event
  • When planned interventions have not been successful

They are not designed to replace formal risk assessments; however, after an event and during the subsequent debrief, it is vital to review any existing risk assessment, to see whether any tweaks or changes might be required. Perhaps the situation you have been faced with now becomes a foreseeable risk that can be anticipated and averted, and therefore should be included in policy documentation.

The most important factor when employing a dynamic risk assessment is flexibility and being poised and ready to respond to any curve balls. By staying hypervigilant and keeping an eye out for cues and signs of distress and discomfort, we are better prepared to respond in an appropriate fashion. Above all, we need to avoid falling into the trap of complacency.

How to make a dynamic risk assessment

Perhaps the trickiest aspect of making a dynamic risk assessment is lack of time. Invariably, situations that require an immediate response are unfolding at an alarming rate – sometimes a matter of seconds – so this process needs plenty of practice and rehearsal.

The first thing to do is stop, think, and identify. This involves engaging our ‘thinking’ brain, which is easier said than done when our body is in a heightened, hyper-alert condition. When situations arise that pose risk or danger, we automatically go into a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ state and our pre-frontal cortex (the thinking brain) shuts down.

In those moments, we need to quickly activate our rational response mechanism by finding the ‘pause’. Pausing allows us to regulate our behaviour, consider different possibilities and respond, rather than react, to what is going on around us.

Once we have engaged our thinking brain, we can assess what can be done immediately to keep people safe and make achievable, realistic decisions about what action to take.

Developing our ability to make dynamic risk assessments

The process of making dynamic risk assessments takes practice and patience. The more you are exposed to these sorts of situations, the more experience you gain and the more you can evaluate what works and what doesn’t. However, there are other steps you can take to develop your confidence and ability to make dynamic risk assessments.

Fostering a culture of support and interdependence is vital within settings. Facilitating a post-incident debrief with leaders, colleagues and peers can be a really useful way to identify strategies to de-escalate and collaborate about a range of responses. Asking questions like, ‘What would you do in the same situation?’ can help practitioners consider a range of possibilities in case a similar situation arises in the future.

Scenario-based training is another technique that settings could employ to prepare staff for a range of events that could arise. This type of training, particularly around de-escalation strategies, empowers people with knowledge and understanding and gives them the opportunity to practise and prepare for the ‘what if?’ events.

It all comes down to relationships

Ultimately, however, it is the quality of the relationship you have with individuals in your care that will determine the success of any dynamic risk assessment. By knowing individuals inside out and prioritising strong relationships built on trust and understanding, you will be better prepared and better equipped to make the right decision when faced with the unexpected.