Assessing risks in any workplace should be a key part of an organisations strategy in helping them to make sure they protect both staff and the business. The process itself can often be made overly complicated but it really does not need to be. At its most basic all that is involved is working out what can go wrong and then putting control measures in place to try to prevent that happening and lowering risks to as low a level as is reasonably practicable.

Involving the right people from the very start of the process is vital to making sure risks are assessed thoroughly. This should include not only those in charge of health and safety and its implementation but also those directly involved in the work which is being assessed – after all these are the people that need to be protected. However, risk assessments should be carried out by competent persons.

Adequate risk assessments are fundamental to ensuring the effective management of health and safety risks at work. They should take into account:
•       people;
•       premises;
•       plant; and
•       procedures.

One approach to risk assessments is to follow these five simple steps:

•       Identify the hazards.
•       Decide who might be harmed and how.
•       Evaluate the risks and decide on precautions.
•       Record your findings and implement them.
•       Review your assessment and update if necessary.

Hazards are anything that could cause harm; e.g. working at heights, chemicals, electricity, etc., whilst the risk is the chance, whether low or high, that someone could be harmed by those hazards and an indication of how serious the harm could be.

Removing a hazard is naturally the best way to avoid risk but that is not always an available option. In the first instance then we should try to ‘avoid the risk’ completely, for instance by changing the process involved. If this is not an option then we should find a ‘substitute’; i.e. use less hazardous materials. If this is unachievable then we should ‘minimise’ the risk by possibly limiting exposure to individuals or implement ‘general control measures’ such as barriers or warning systems. As a very last resort ‘personal protective equipment (PPE)’ should be used to protect individuals.

Any controls implemented should focus on protecting collective groups rather than individuals whilst the more human behaviour is involved the more likely something is to go wrong. PPE is the last resort for this very reason – its successful application relies on its user adopting it correctly.

Generic risk assessments may well suffice for most repetitive activities in low risk workplaces such as offices and few if any control measures may therefore be required. However, if you are adopting this kind of approach for your organisation then you should be cautious as incorrect assumptions could be made and could result in forgetting that other risks exist.

To cover against all eventualities then site specific risk assessments should be undertaken to account for differing hazards such as different work conditions, locations, access or time constraints.

Risk assessments should not be used alone as a basis for assuming that employees with always apply common sense. It is also necessary to maintain an appropriate level of monitoring in the workplace to ensure continued effectiveness.

Risk assessments can include reports where hazards are described and control measures recommended or numerical rating systems (e.g. low / medium / high or 1–5 scales for likelihood and severity of an accident occurring) used to identify the level of risk. A numerical approach, however, can sometimes create a drive to achieve certain scores rather than to effectively identify and control risks.

The key to successful risk assessment therefore lies largely in the competence of those involved. Whatever choice is made regarding type or method of risk assessment, the results should always be consistent as well as being simple to understand and action.

Article by Gavin Bates from the Workplace Law Network