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HARM, HAZARDS, RISK AND PRECAUTIONS

Reflections on workplace risk assessment concepts and processes

Problems with risk assessment are mentioned in many of the HSE prosecutions publicised on our website which often include comments from from HSE such as “the defendant failed to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment”?

We therefore offer the following thoughts on the actions involved in risk assessment to throw some light on what should be a very simple and staightforward process.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 Regulation 3 (MHSW) require that employers:

“make a suitable and sufficient assessment of (a) the risks to the health and safety of his employees to which they are exposed whilst they are at work; and (b) the risks to the health and safety of persons not in his employment arising out of or in connection with the conduct by him of his undertaking”

But what do we mean by ‘risk assessment’? The words do not mean the same to everyone.

There is HSE Risk Assessment Guidance which is a good starting point, however, we will first consider some of the key terms used during the assessment process.

This is an important subject. Risk assessment is the foundation stone of ‘health and safety management’. In addition, getting it wrong can land a business in court.

Prevent or minimise harm

What are we looking to achieve by the risk assessment process?

Our objective is to keep people ‘safe’ and ‘healthy’ which means free from harm arising from our work activities or at least we seek to minimise any harm caused.

Harm in the workplace setting can be described damage to physical or mental health caused by hazards or dangers present in the workplace. We could widen the definition to include physical assets and the environment.

So what are these hazard ?

Identify significant hazards

Risk assessment starts by identifying the hazards arising from particular work activities. A hazard is a potential for harm arising from an activity. For example:

  • Work at height – involves the hazard of falling…. and hitting the ground;
  • Moving vehicles – in the workplace involve the hazard of being struck by the vehicle; and
  • Solvent application – use of solvent based paints involves the hazard of inhaling vapour etc.

There is a finite number of physical, chemical, and biological hazards although an infinite number of ways in which the hazard might be present in the workplace.

Some hazard might be trivial in their consequence whilst others can be fatal. HSE are keen to emphasise that we should focus on ‘significant’ hazards although this is not legally defined. It is a judgement in each situation.

Eliminate hazards and reduce risk

A hazard is the fixed inherent ability of an activity to cause harm, although hazards can be eliminated. Cease the activity and the inherent potential for harm is removed.

For example: use water based paints and the hazard of solvent inhalation is eliminated; erect structures by working at ground level and the hazard of falling from heights above ground level is removed.

However, beware the unintended consequences of your actions. Removing one hazard may introduce other hazards. As NASA might say ….. there is no such thing as a free launch!

What about risk? There are two components of risk – probability and consequences – both can be changed such that either or both components of risk are reduced e.g. the likelihood of falling from height can be reduced by using guard rails; the harm caused when falling from height can be reduced by minimising fall distance or by use of fall arrest systems.

The law and HSE guidance do not require quantitative risk matrices or the ranking of probability and consequences. The risk assessment process for most workplaces can be solely qualitative. Numerical ratings usually add little value and only serve to complicate what should be a simple process focussing on the sensible precautions required.

However, you can use numbers if it helps your business make judgements on your control measures.

Take sensible precautions

We have now arrived where we started. The aim of the risk assessment process is to identify the sensible precautions needed to avoid or minimise harm from our work activities.

In terms of the precise legal requirement risk assessment is for the purpose of:

“identifying the measures he (the employer) needs to take to comply with the requirements and prohibitions imposed upon him by or under the relevant statutory provisions.”

The sensible precautions required for particular work activities are often contained in the legislation and Approved Codes of Practice or in HSE and Industry Guidance.

Where there is no published standard of precautions employers must use their own judgement as supported by any sources of health and safety assistance.

So the task for constructors (and designers) is really very simple. Identify significant hazards on construction projects, eliminate those hazards where you can and control the probability or the consequence of those remaining hazards with sensible controls.

Job done!

Record your significant findings

Finally, the MHSW Regulations require that:

“where the employer employs five or more employees, he shall record  (a) the significant findings of the assessment; and (b) any group of his employees identified by it as being especially at risk.”

HSE stress that any record produced should be simple, focused on controls and helpful in communicating and managing risk from significant hazards. This involves noting the main points e.g. “fume from welding: local exhaust ventilation used and regularly checked”.

HSE guidance on recording may change in future to emphasise that risk assessment should be part of day-to-day business management and that the risk assessment record of ‘significant findings’ can be part of an existing business document.

Where the nature of work changes fairly frequently or the workplace changes and develops (e.g. a construction site), or where workers move from site to site the assessment may have to concentrate more on the broad range of hazards anticipated.

Useful links

We hope the above is helps to understand the simple and uncomplicated actions involved in the requirement for risk assessment. See also our other website posts concerning Risk Assessment.

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