We often hear about risk assessments and risk control in the workplace but what exactly does this mean? What are the legal obligations for an employer? What are the legal obligations of an employee? In this article we will take a look at assessing and controlling risks in the workplace and how the information gathered should be used and updated going forward.
Why do employers need to carry out risk assessments?
While much of the focus seems to be on personal injury claims as a consequence of negligence, the bottom line is that no employer wants to put their employees (or their customers) at risk of injury or worse. Therefore, there is a need (indeed a legal obligation) to carry out regular risk assessments to identify actual issues and potential issues and then find solutions. In the event of personal injury compensation claims, if an employer is able to show they took reasonable action to prevent such injuries then they may be able to mitigate or dismiss any claims.
How to approach a risk assessment
In the first instance, a risk assessment is a brainstorming session of potential hazards in the workplace no matter how unlikely or extreme. This may include an array of potential hazards involving:-
- Working from heights
- Mental health
While this list is by no means exclusive, it does give you an idea of the various types of workplace hazards which need to be considered. For example, how can you protect employees when working with chemicals and electricity? Is there any further action you can take to prevent stress and tiredness which can lead to mental health issues? What about additional safety equipment when working from great heights?
The second part of any risk assessment is to assess the element of risk associated with each hazard, high, medium or low, and the potential for accidents, injuries and their severity. For example:-
- The risk of using chemicals could lead to chemical burns, fume inhalation and potentially more serious consequences
- Tiredness/stress could very easily lead to mistakes which may affect not only the individual but also their colleagues
As we work through the process of identifying potential hazards, the risk of occurrence and the potential consequences, the process will appear less daunting. It is also worth reminding ourselves that while risk assessments are more commonly associated with the workplace, they are often required for outside events, etc.
While seemingly a lot more informal, if you are hosting an event in your garden where there are numerous guests, alcohol and dancing, you may need to consider the suitability of the venue and any changes you may need to make. To many people this may seem “over-the-top” but in the event of an accident due to for example a raised pavement slab, you could well be the subject of a personal injury compensation claim. You can never be too careful!
Identifying workplace hazards
In some ways it can be difficult for those working in an office to appreciate the challenges and conditions on the work floor. As a consequence, when looking to identify workplace hazards the official advice is to walk around your workplace simply noting potential issues and hazards to consider. These will predominantly be separated into three different categories:-
If you look at these in isolation you should very quickly be able to identify minor, medium and high risk hazards. It is also useful to take into account the array of information around you which sometimes we take for granted. This includes:-
- Specific manufacturer’s instructions regarding hazards and risks
- Advice on long-term health issues such as exposure to excessive noise
- Workplace accident records can sometimes identify emerging patterns
- Non-routine work such as maintenance
Many people will be looking at the above information thinking that is “common sense” but by splitting individual tasks down into different groupings everything becomes clearer. Even if it turns out there are no real additional risks associated with a particular business, the task itself can give business owners and business managers a more in-depth understanding of their business and the working environment.
Identifying those potentially at risk
The next task when creating a risk assessment is to look at groups of people in the workforce who may be faced with different risks. The Health and Safety Executive does not recommend assessing the risk of individual employees but to look at individual groups in isolation. For example this may include:-
- Shift workers
- Younger workers
- Warehouse workers
- Off-site employees
- Office staff
Again, this list is by no means exclusive but it does give you an idea of how you can group different parts of the workforce, and customers, and assess their specific needs. This in no way eliminates the need for general health and safety training but it does allow for specific additional training to be given to individual groups. There is also the issue of employees having a legal obligation to ensure the safety of their colleagues. This is something often overlooked as many people focus wholly on employers and their legal obligations.
Identify risks and introducing precautions
Even though we sometimes see workplace injury claims coming to court which involve “unforeseeable risks” this is not generally taken into account. If an employer, as one example, can demonstrate that they took into account all reasonable known risks then this could mitigate or potentially dismiss the threat of personal injury claims. While there is obviously a significant emphasis on health and safety in the workplace, courts will also take into account that businesses need to balance risk against money, time and actual requirement. In essence, they would not generally expect action to be taken if it was grossly disproportionate to the level of risk.
Considering a specific risk
When considering a specific risk you need to take into account the safety measures currently in place and then consider whether the hazard can be completely eliminated. If this is not possible then further consideration should be given to making the risk even less likely.
Practical steps to reducing risk
There are various practical steps which can be taken to reduce any risk such as considering a different/less risky approach, reorganising the workforce, supplying additional protective equipment, preventing access to hazardous substances/equipment and last but not least, consulting the workforce. As we touched on above, it can be very easy for business owners/managers to become detached from the workplace, potential risks and potential solutions. Ask those who face these potential risks every day and they will no doubt have a view about reducing the dangers!
Record your findings
It is obvious that after going through the risk assessment process, which can be extensive and costly, you need to record your findings. However, what do you need to record, how should you record it and how often should you review specific risk assessments?
First of all, when creating a risk assessment we are not talking about a huge officially bound report with logos, sub-references, perfect images, etc. We are talking about a practical useful risk assessment which gets to the point with no waffle. Many employers prefer to use the bullet point approach which is focused, to the point and makes everything extremely clear even to those with a limited knowledge of the specific business. However, there are also a number of more formal details which should be included in any risk assessment report:-
- Details of when the assessment was carried out
- Those involved in writing the report
- Specific hazards taken into account
- Assessment of individual groups
- Suggested improvements/changes
- Specific involvement of the workforce/representatives
Any risk assessment report should be written in a manner which would allow someone with limited/no knowledge of the business to understand the potential risks and ways in which they have been addressed. In the event of any injuries in the workplace it is highly likely that recent risk assessments would be used as evidence to demonstrate their standard/relevance and action taken.
Updating risk assessment reports
It is a common mistake to consider that once a risk assessment has been written up then it is finished. The reality is that very few workplaces remain the same in the longer term and as a consequence specific risks will come and go and further assessments will be required. Employers who treat this as a purely legal requirement are missing the point. The main purpose of a risk assessment report is to ensure the safe well-being of employees (and customers) while protecting the business from compensation claims and in many cases reputational damage. It would make sense to consider revisiting risk assessments if:-
- There have been significant changes in the workplace
- Additional potential improvements have been identified
- New risks have been spotted
- Patterns have emerged in recent workplace accident records
History shows that the best and most useful risk assessment reports are those created in tandem by employers and employees. Both groups can give their individual input and work together to address all the risks in the workplace, current safety procedures and any improvements which can be made.
When you take an in-depth look at risk assessment reports in the workplace it is obvious that they are extremely important for both employers and employees. It is also imperative that both parties work together, pushing in the same direction and giving honest and frank opinions on potential risks, hazards and solutions. Very often some of the more effective solutions to specific business sector risks will be adopted right across the board thereby improving the working environment for huge numbers of people.
In many cases this is a win-win situation for all parties, employees are safer and employers mitigate the risks of workplace injury claims and are often able to create more efficient procedures to the long-term benefit of the business.