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BowTies in Risk Management: 9 things you must know

Before we dive into what BowTies are and the role that they play in risk management let us take a step back and discuss risk management.

1. What is risk management?

According to ISO 31000 – Risk Management (the internationally recognised standard), risk management process is a ‘systematic application of management policies, procedures and practices to the tasks of communication, consultation, establishing the context, identifying, analysing, evaluating, treating, monitoring, and reviewing risk’.

There are a lot of activities required in this process and all these activities need to be carried out in a systematic manner.

This seems a long way away from the usual way of managing risk, that is, identify the hazard, identify the controls to minimise the hazard and then implement the controls.

2. Why the change?

Our understanding about risk has changed.  Before we considered risk as operating in a static state.  That is, once an activity was defined the risk associated with that activity was also defined.  It was simply a matter of making people aware of the hazards and controls associated with the different activities.

However, we have since learnt that risk is not fixed, but changes continuously, and assessing and managing risk is highly complex.

The reason for this complexity is numerous. People are complex and while working with machinery is predictable, working with people is not.  The working environment is also continually changing – weather, work scope, other workers etc.  There are also factors such as economic conditions and competing priorities that will impact risk management.

If an organisation is to develop an acceptable risk management strategy, then it needs to have a system that considers all these complexities in a way that aligns with the international risk management standard.

It is suggested that the BowTie methodology is one such strategy.

3. BowTies: What is it?

BowTie methodology is a barrier-based risk management tool that uses a visual representation to identify, analyse, evaluate, monitor, and review contextualized risk scenarios.

4. What does a BowTie look like?

The BowTie is divided into 3 parts: the left side, the right side and the centre.  The left side of the BowTie represents the causes of the top event, while the right side represents the consequences.  The centre of the BowTie represents the top event. 

Example of a BowTie used in risk management.

The BowTie diagram includes the following components:

Left Side

Threats: the potential causes of the top event

Preventative Controls or Barriers: the measures put in place to prevent the threats from causing the top event


Hazard: The potential source of danger or harm

Top Event: Event that leads to the loss of control of the hazard

Right Side

Consequences: The potential outcomes of the top event and hazard. The eventual impact on people, assets, community, and environment.

Recovery Measures or Mitigating Barriers: The measures put in place to mitigate the consequences if the top event occurs

5. Real life BowTie Example

Let’s illustrate the concept of a bowtie method using a relatable real-life situation. Imagine you’re a chef cooking in a restaurant kitchen. You know that cooking involves various risks, for instance a kitchen fire. To effectively manage this hazard, you can use the BowTie method.

Here’s how fire safety in the kitchen could be represented using the BowTie methodology:  


  • Hazard: The gas used in the cooking process itself is a hazard, which can potentially lead to a fire consequence. 
  • Threats: These are the potential causes of the fire, such as gas leaks from the stove, or the burner running without flame due to malfunction, or leaving the gas stove unattended. 
  • Preventative Controls or Barriers: Measures put in place to prevent the threats from causing a fire, like installing flame sensors. 
  • Top Event: The top event is the point where the gas release becomes a disaster if left uncontrolled. 
  • Recovery Measures or Mitigating Barriers: Measures to mitigate the consequences of a fire, if it occurs, such as having fire extinguishers, gas and/or smoke alarms, or staff trained in emergency procedures. 
  • Consequences: The potential outcomes of a fire, including property damage, injuries, or even loss of life. 

6. Why a BowTie workshop is a clever idea

To enhance the BowTie analysis process, you can conduct a BowTie workshop. It all starts with leveraging existing data on risks and barriers to create a visual representation of threats, hazards, consequences, risks, and barriers.  

Before the BowTie workshop, the facilitator and scribe will pre-populate draft bowtie diagrams with the findings from previous risk studies. Then, the facilitator, scribe, and different stakeholders take part in a meeting to discuss and identify additional threats, consequences, and barriers.

This collaborative workshop provides an opportunity for different stakeholders to contribute their expertise and insights to the analysis process, ensuring that all relevant risks and barriers are considered. 

During the workshop, a series of meetings are held to review, complete and refine the draft bowties until they are approved. This iterative process ensures a thorough analysis of the risks involved and allows for comprehensive risk management. 

7. How the BowTie methodology revolutionised industry incident understanding

The BowTie method played a crucial role in understanding and managing the causes and consequences of accidents like the Piper Alpha disaster and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  

Piper Alpha was an oil production platform that exploded in 1988, resulting in the loss of 167 lives. After the disaster, the BowTie method was used to analyse the causes and consequences of the accident, highlighting the potential factors that contributed to the disaster, such as equipment failure, inadequate maintenance, and communication breakdowns.

The BowTie methodology helped investigators identify the critical control measures and mitigating barriers that were lacking or ineffective in preventing the incident. That led to significant improvements in safety practices and regulations in the offshore oil and gas industry. 

In fact, in the Australian petroleum industry safety regime, BowTie’s are now the accepted means of risk management communication, while this was not the case 20 years ago.

8. Advantages of BowTie:

  • Establishing a common language of risk: BowTie diagrams provide a common language for risk communication and show the result of risk assessment, including inherent and residual risk. 
  • Comprehensive risk analysis: BowTie analysis provides a comprehensive overview of hazards, threats, top events, consequences, and barriers. 
  • Visual representation of risk: BowTie diagrams provide a clear and easily digestible visual representation of risk, making it easier for staff and managers to understand how major accidents can occur and what barriers exist to prevent or mitigate them. 
  • Barrier-based risk management: BowTie analysis is a barrier-based risk management tool that utilizes diagrams to visually represent and communicate the factors that contribute to risk.  
  • Valuable tool for hazard identification and education: BowTie analysis is a valuable tool for educating personnel about hazard analysis and conducting hazard analysis. 

9. Disadvantages of BowTie:

  • In-depth knowledge required: BowTie diagrams can require in-depth knowledge from subject matter experts for consistency in definitions and development methodology. 
  • Time-consuming: Developing a meaningful BowTie diagram may take considerable time. 
  • False sense of security: Barriers identified in bowtie diagrams may not be independent of each other, leading to a false sense of safety. 
  • Confusing threats: BowTie diagrams can be confusing when threats are not clearly defined or when there are too many threats that make the BowTie too large and complex. 
  • Not a foolproof risk assessment tool: No risk assessment tool is foolproof, and BowTie analysis is no exception. It is important to keep in mind that BowTie is just one of the possible methodologies to analyse risks. 

Want to implement The BowTie Methodology into your workplace?

At BARCLAYSS®, we understand that developing effective risk management strategies for an organisation can be challenging, especially as risks become more complex.  

To confidently navigate the complexities of risk management and safeguard your organisation’s operations and objectives, it is important to embrace a fresh perspective and utilise powerful tools such as the BowTie methodology.

If you’d like to learn more about BowTie and how you can implement it in your workplace, fill out the form below.

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