The typology of risk

The question of risk originated in the field of economics, then quickly spread to all aspects of society. In order to get one’s bearings in this vast subject, it is natural to try and classify risks. Yet there is no single typology for risks. Ineris deals with all environmental risks with a social impact.

Risks are classified in public policy by categories based on several criteria including technical, legal and administrative considerations. Thus, there is not one but several typologies, depending on whether you are most concerned with their application, their sources, the targets they affect, their degree of intensity or the effects they produce.

For example, we distinguish between individual risks and collective risks, military and civil risks, economic and financial risks, socio-political risks, professional risks, business risk, employment risks, everyday personal risks, technological and natural risks, etc.

A risk typology for civil society

“Social risk” is defined as the community taking charge of preventing and/or repairing damages that affect the living conditions of all or part of society. The growing awareness of the necessity to manage risk collectively is closely linked to the industrial revolution which took place in France in the first half of the19th century.

Explosion at the Grenelle gunpowder factory


Explosion at the Grenelle gunpowder factory, August 31, 1794 (19th century engraving)

In France, the first major industrial accident, in the modern sense, occurred in Paris on August 31, 1794. At that time, the Reign of Terror had created the need for swift mobilization of armed forces. The revolutionary government had thus concentrated production in only two locations, and began testing new manufacturing processes, including the refining of potassium nitrate (a component of gunpowder) and manufacture of the "black powder".
In February 1794, therefore, a gunpowder factory was installed at the Château de Grenelle, near Les Invalides. By June, it was producing 30% of France’s gunpowder. Its output was then increased at the request of the Public Health Committee. Initially designed to accommodate slightly less than 700 workers, the factory employed nearly 1,500 by the beginning of the summer.
On August 31, around 7:00 a.m., it erupted in an explosion that caused more than 500 deaths, over 800 injuries and damage to rooftops in the Saint Germain neighbourhood. Windows shattered in the Champs-Elysées, debris was found on the Chemin de Saint-Denis, more than 10 km away. It took a year to repair the damage to Paris that the explosion had caused.

Social protection was organized around family housing issues: illness, aging, poverty, professional activity, etc. At the same time, the first measures were taken to ensure public order (a concept integrated into the French Civil Code in 1804), manage the risk of industrial accidents and of pollution (Imperial Decree of October 15, 1810) and protect public health (creation of departmental councils for public health and hygiene in 1802). Risks of environmental degradation took on a new importance with the emergence of natural conservation policies in the 1960s and ‘70s,

Environmental risks

The modern notion of environmental risk, which is a core aspect of Ineris’ mission, relies on a broad definition of the environment, one consistent with the term used in public environmental management policies. The environment encompasses all human populations, goods, infrastructure, housing and nature (flora and fauna) that could be exposed to a given risk.
Within this context, the technical term “stakes,” though abstract in common speech, is generally used to describe the concrete realities when for example, a house, a river, a road, the inhabitants of a neighbourhood, a school, a forest, or shopping centre are exposed to a risk.


Modern public policy ensures that a range of public risks are managed, including:

  •  “Traditional” social risks: job insecurity, exclusion, dependence of the elderly, unstable family structures, long-term unemployment, downward social mobility, workplace accidents and illnesses, etc.
  • Risks related to environmental damage: natural (avalanches, floods, storms, earthquakes) or “anthropogenic” risks, caused by human activity (chemical site explosions, toxic clouds, oil spills, nuclear accidents, soil pollution, etc.).
  • Health risks: addiction, infectious diseases and epidemics, unsanitary conditions, food contamination, everyday accidents, illnesses linked to environmental pollution, etc.
  • Public disorder risks: incivility, riots, terrorism, criminality, cyber-attacks, etc.