What is a Risk Assessment?

Risk assessments methods are used to decide on priorities and to set objectives for eliminating hazards and reducing risks. Wherever possible, risks should be eliminated through the selection and design of facilities, equipment and processes.

What is a Risk Assessment overview

Risk assessment and minimum levels of risk prevention or control are regulated by health and safety legal requirements. Risk assessment is an essential part of the planning stage of any health and safety management system.

If risks cannot be eliminated, they should be minimised by the use of physical controls, or as a last resort, through systems of work and personal protective equipment.

The control of risks is essential to secure and maintain a health and safe workplace, which complies with the relevant legal requirements. In this article, hazard identification and risk assessment are covered together with appropriate risk control measures.

A hierarchy of control methods are is discussed that give a preferred order of approach to risk control. 

The general duties of employers to their employees in section 2 of the HSW Act 1974 imply the need for risk assessments.  This duty was also extended by section 3 of the Act to anybody else affected by activities of the employer – contractors, visitors, customers, or members of the public.

However, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations are much more specific concerning the need for risk assessment. The following requirements are laid down in those regulations:

  • the risk assessment shall be suitable and sufficient and cover both employees and non-employees affected by the employer’s undertaking  for example, contractors, members of the public , students, patients, customers); every self-employed person shall make make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risk to which they or those affected by the undertaking may be exposed. 
  • any risk assessment shall be reviewed if there is reason to suspect that it is no longer valid or if a significant change has taken place
  • where there are five or more employees, the significant findings of the assessment shall be recorded and any specially at risk group of employees identified. (This does not mean that employers with fours or less employees need not undertake risk assessments.)
  • identify the significant risks and ignore the trivial ones;
  • identify and priorities the measures required to comply with any relevant statutory provisions; 
  • remain appropriate to the nature of the work and valid over a reasonable period of time;
  • identify the risk arising from or in connection with the work. The level of detail should be proportionate to the risk.

On completion of the outcome of your inspection your statement should include a detailed description of the hazards and risks, the preventative or control measures in place and any further measures required to eliminate the risks present. When assessing risks under the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations, reference to other Regulations may be necessary even if there is no specific requirement for a risk assessment in those regulations.

Apart from the duty under the Management of Health and Safety and Safety at Work Regulations to undertake a health and safety assessment of the risks to any person (employees, contractors or members of the public), who may be affected by the activities of the organisation, the following Regulations  require a specific risk assessment.

  • Ionising Radiators Regulations
  • Control of Asbestos Regulations
  • Control of Noise at Work Regulations
  • Manual Handling Operations Regulations
  • Health & Safety (Display Screen Equipment)
  • Confined Spaces Regulations
  • Work at Hight Regulations;
  • Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (not under HSW Act);
  • Control of Vibration at Work Regulations;
  • Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations.

There are two basic forms of risk assessment. A quantitative risk assessment attempts to measure the risk by relating the probability of the risk occurring to the possible severity of the outcome and them giving the risk a number value.

This method of risk assessment is used in situations where a malfunction could be very serious for example, aircraft design and maintenance or the petrochemical industry.

The more common form of risk assessment is the qualitive assessment , which is based purely on personal judgment and is normally defined as high, satisfactory as the definition (high, medium, or low) is normally used to determine the time frame over which further action is to be taken. 

The term “generic” risk assessment is sometimes used and described a risk assessment which covers similar activities or work equipment in different departments, sites or companies. Such assessments are often produced by specialist bodies.

Such as trade associations. If used, they must be appropriate to the particular job and they will need to be extended to cover additional hazards or risks.

The primary objective of a risk assessment is to determine the measures required by the organisation to comply with relevant health and safety legislation and, thereby, reduce the level of occupational injuries and ill-health.

The purpose is to help the employer or self-employed person to determine the measures required to comply with their legal statutory duty under the HSW Act 1974 or its associated Regulations.

The risk assessment will need to cover all those who may be at risk, such as customers contractors and members of the public. In the case of shared workplaces, an overall risk assessment may be needed in partnership with other employers.

Any accidents of incidents of ill-health will cause both direct and indirect costs and incur an insured and an uninsured cost. It is important that all these costs are taken into account  when  the full cost  of an accident is calculated.

In a study undertaken by the HSE , it was shown that indirect or hidden costs could be 36 times greater than direct costs of an accident. In other words, the direct costs of an accident or disease represent the tip of the iceberg when compared with the overall costs.

Risk assessment is part of the planning and performance stages of the health and safety management system. All aspects of the organisation, including health and safety management, need to be covered by the risk assessment process.

This will involve the assessment of risk in areas such as maintenance procedures, training programmes and supervisory arrangements. A general risk assessment of the organisation should reveal the significant hazards present and the general control measures that are in place.

Such a risk assessment should be completed first and then followed by more specific risk assessments that examine individual work activities.

Risk Assessors – It is important that the risk assessments team is selected on the basis of its competence to assess risks in the particular areas under examination in the organisation. The Team Leader or Manager should have health and safety experience and relevant training in risk management. It is sensible to involve the appropriate line manager, who has responsibility for the area or activity being assessed, as a team member.

Other members of the team will be selected on the basis of their experience, their technical and/or design knowledge and any relevant standards or Regulations relating to the activity or process. At least one team member must have communication and writing skills. A positive attitude and commitment to the risk assessment task are also important factors. It is likely that team members will require some basic training in risk assessments.

LOOK FOR THE HAZARDS – The essential first step in risk assessment is to seek out and identify hazards. Relevant sources of information include;

  • legislation and supporting Approved Code of Practice which give practical guidelines and includes basic minimum requirements;
  • process information 
  • product information provided under Section 6 of the HSW Act;
  • relevant British, European and International standards;
  • industry or trade associations guidelines 
  • the personal knowledge and experience of managers and employees 
  • accident, ill-health and incident data from within the organisation, from other organisations or from central sources
  • expert advice and opinion and relevant research

There should be a critical appraisal of all routine and non-routine business activities. People exposed may include not just employees, but also others such as members of the public, contractors and users of the products and services. Employees and safety representatives can make a useful contribution in identifying hazards. 

In the simplest cases, hazards can be identified by observation and by comparing the circumstances with the relevant information, for example single-storey premises will not present  any hazards associated  with  stairs.  In more complex  cases, measurements  such as air sampling or examining the methods of machine operation may  be necessary  to identify  the presence of hazards from chemicals or machinery. In the chemicals or nuclear industry special techniques and systems may be needed such as hazard and operability studies (HAZOPS) and analysis techniques  such as event or fault-tree analysis . 

Specialist advice may be needed to choose and apply the most appropriate method. Only significant hazards, which could result in serious harm to people, should be identified. Trivial hazards are a lower priority.

A tour of the area under consideration by the risk assessment team is an essential part of hazard identification as is consultation with the relevant section of the workplace.  review of accidents, incidents and ill-health records will also help with the identification. Other sources of information include safety inspections, surveys and audit reports, job or task analysis reports, manufactures handbooks or data sheets and Approved Codes of Practice and other forms of guidance.

Hazards will vary from workplace to workplace but the checklist shows the common hazards that are in many workplaces. It is important that unsafe conditions are not confused with hazards, during hazard identification. Unsafe conditions should be rectified as soon as possible after observation.

Employees and contractors who work full time as the workplace are the most obvious groups at risk and it will be a necessary check that they are competent to perform their particular tasks. However, there may be other groups who spend time in or around the workplace.

These include young workers, trainees, new and expectant mothers, cleaners, contractors and maintenance workers and members of the public. Members of the public will include visitors, patients, students of customers as well as passers-by.

The risk assessment must include any additional controls required due to the vulnerability of any of these groups, perhaps caused by inexperience or disability. It must also give an indication of the numbers of people from the different groups who come into contact with the hazard and the frequency of these contacts.

This step is really two steps – evaluating the risks and evaluating the adequacy controls. During most risk assessments it will be noted that some of the risk posed by the hazard have already been addressed or controlled.

The purpose of the risk assessment, therefore, is to reduce the remaining risk. This is called the residual risk.  The goal of risk assessment is to reduce all residual risks to as low a level as reasonably practicable.

In a relatively complex workplace, this will take time so that a system of ranking risk is required – the higher the risk level the sooner it must be addressed and controlled.

For most situations, a qualitative risk assessment will be perfectly adequate. During the risk assessment, a judgement is made to whether the risk level is high, medium or low in terms of the risk of somebody being injured. This designation defines a timetable for remedial actions to be taken thereby reducing the risk. High-risk activities should normally be addressed in days, medium risks in weeks and low risks in months or in some cases no action will be required.

It will usually be necessary for risk assessors to receive some training in risk level designation. A quantitative risk assessment assessment  attempts to quantify the risk level in terms of the likelihood of an incident and its subsequent severity. Clearly the higher the likelihood and severity, the higher the risk will be. The likelihood depends on such factors as the control measures in place, the frequency of exposure to the hazard and the category of person exposed to the hazard. The severity will depend on the magnitude of the hazard. 

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