Reflecting on the past year, one thing is for sure – Covid has highlighted the importance of risk assessment like never before. Former HSE inspector Nick Wilson CMIOSH offers 12 top tips based on the common mistakes he has seen employers make when compiling risk assessments.
As a systematic approach to identifying hazards and evaluating any associated risks within a workplace, risk assessment is the foundation of an effective safety management system. We all recognise that it is a legal requirement, but beyond simply achieving compliance, conducting 'suitable and sufficient' risk assessments helps to recognise and control hazards, implement sensible control measures, raise awareness and reduce incidents, thereby protecting your employees and your organisation. Getting it right is essential.
However, things can be missed, and all too often incident investigations reveal the inadequacies of risk assessments which, had they been properly conducted and implemented could have avoided serious harm.
1. Equip staff appropriately
Anyone completing a risk assessment must be competent to do so. Competence can be defined as those with the necessary Knowledge, Ability, Training and Experience (KATE) to identify hazards and implement sensible, proportionate solutions. Organisations with a low risk profile can upskill anyone with responsibility for conducting risk assessments. HSE guidance (INDG163 (rev4) ‘Risk assessment – A brief guide to controlling risks in the workplace’) together with interactive e-Learning courses can help achieve this. In more complex organisations, risk assessor training packages are a great way to build competence.
2. Involve others
Remember: risk assessment is not a singular effort. Collaborate with those who undertake the activity you’re assessing and it is more likely you will emerge with something that it is suitable and sufficient.
3. Cross reference with other assessments
Ask yourself what already exists in your organisation? Investigate to prevent duplication and/or possible contradictory messages.
4. Consider how somebody could be injured
Sometimes the terms hazard and risk are confused. The hazard (something that has potential to cause harm) must be identified separately. Against the hazard, provide a description as to the risk of how somebody could come to harm. For example, a rotating drill is a hazard and becoming entangled in it leading to significant injury is the risk. But the drill will present other risks which will demand separate attention, so make sure the reader is clear on what risk control measures control what risks.
5. Reference applicable guidance
To ensure you’re following industry best practice, look at guidance published by your national regulator, trade associations and other expert organisations in your sector. Where appropriate reference this guidance in your risk assessment to demonstrate robustness and increase confidence.
6. Address likely points
For any risk assessment, consider the following:
- Health monitoring/surveillance
- Maintenance and inspections
- Pre-use checks
- Previous accidents/near misses
- Safe systems of work for higher-risk activities/tasks/equipment
- Start-up/stop under normal conditions and isolation for maintenance
- Training Risk assessments, particularly for machinery, must consider normal operating conditions and non-routine activities such as maintenance, inspection and cleaning.
7. Avoid generic, ambiguous terms
For example, ‘heavy’ and ‘PPE’. Instead, use more precise weight measurements, for example ‘up to 25kg’, and explicitly state the type of personal protective equipment (PPE) to be worn and the required standard of the PPE item (which can usually be found labelled on the item itself or in the manufacturer’s instructions). Similarly, you must be specific with your statements, for example ‘a person will/must/shall use hearing protection’.
8. Provide a defined matrix with definitions
When using a quantitative scoring system, the reader should understand how the level of risk has been determined, hence descriptors of likelihood and severity should be clearly set out.
9. Communicate the findings
There’s no point carrying out a risk assessment if you are not going to share the findings with those who stand to be affected. Ensure risk assessments are shared with staff and obtain documented evidence that they have seen them. Select the most appropriate medium for communicating the message.
10. Review risk assessments often
This must be at least annually or whenever something changes, giving you reason to believe it may no longer be suitable and sufficient. An accident at work is one example of when you should review the adequacy of any relevant risk assessment.
11. Stay organised with a central index
As a quick reference guide, this should list all assessments and the dates reviews are required. Ensure you stick to these dates.
12. Refine general risk assessments
Creating ‘general’ risk assessments that reflect certain activities that are common throughout the workplace and across other sites can be a good starter for 10. But make sure the recipients of such risk assessments modify them if necessary, so that they are specific and reflect conditions on site.
Nick is director of health and safety services at Ellis Whittam