Article reference: UK-IA-HSE17

Risk assessment: an overview


This guide details the risk assessment you're required to carry out under health and safety law.

As an employer, you must assess and manage health and safety risks - whether you are a big business, a small business or just a one-person operation. You are not expected to eliminate all risk, but you are required to protect people as far as "reasonably practicable".

Most risks can be identified and controlled. You have an obligation to provide a safe workplace. You can help to comply with your duty by carrying our frequent risk assessments. They need not be time consuming. Once you've completed the assessment it is important to put your results into practice. If you need to make a number of improvements, you should produce an action plan to deal with the most important first. You should review your assessment to make sure that it remains up to date and effective.

What is risk assessment?

A risk assessment is simply a careful examination of what, in your work, could cause harm to people. Simply put, you weigh up whether you have taken enough precautions or should do more to prevent harm.

Accidents and ill health can ruin lives and affect your business too if output is lost, machinery is damaged, insurance costs increase or you have to go to court. You are legally required to assess the risks in your workplace so that you put in place a plan to control the risks.

Your legal obligations

You must decide what in your work could cause harm to:

  • You;
  • Your employees;
  • Members of the public.

This is so that you can weigh up whether you have taken enough precautions or should do more.

There are five steps to any risk assessment:

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

Don't overcomplicate the process - risk assessments should be "suitable and sufficient". If your risks are well known and the necessary control measures are easy to apply, your risk assessment should also be simple.

If your business is small and you are confident that you understand what's involved, you can do the assessment yourself - you don't have to be a health and safety expert. If you work in a larger business you could ask a health and safety expert to help you. In any case do involve your staff or their representatives in the process - they will have useful information about how the work is done, which will make your assessment of the risk more thorough and effective.

Why? Setting up a thorough and regular system of detailed assessments in your business makes good business sense. It can also:

  • Prove compliance with the law;
  • Cut insurance costs;
  • Strengthen relationships with customers, suppliers, employees and contractors;
  • Improve your reputation.

Risks and hazards

All hazards need to be considered in risk assessments. A hazard is anything with the potential to cause harm. A risk is the likelihood that someone could be harmed by a hazard, together with an indication of how serious the harm could be.

Identify hazards in your workplace

A hazard is anything with the potential to cause harm. The risk is the likelihood that someone could be harmed by that hazard together with an indication of how serious the harm could be. The law doesn't require you to eliminate all risk, but you are required to protect people as far as is reasonably practicable.

The first stage of a risk assessment is to look for hazards. A hazard can be something easily seen, such as a trailing cable, a worn carpet or exposed wiring. Or it can be something less obvious - a slippery surface, for example. It can be something general, such as poor lighting. Or it can be something specific to your business, such as the particular hazardous substances you use.

A hazard can be something directly affecting your employees, such as exposure to bacteria - or something affecting the environment in general, such as your waste materials.

When looking for hazards:

  • Walk around your business;
  • Talk to employees;
  • Look at safety data sheets and manufacturers' instructions to identify potential problem areas;
  • Examine accident and health records to identify existing problem areas.

Who is most at risk?

For each hazard be clear about who may be harmed. This will help you to manage the risk. You should also consider those hazards which affect contractors, visitors, customers and others who may not be on site all of the time. In each case, identify how they may be harmed - what type of injury or ill health might occur.

Some workplace hazards easily overlooked. Make sure you:

  • Tidy up loose or trailing cabling;
  • Look out for wet, slippery, unclean or badly surfaced floors;
  • Ensure all areas are well lit;
  • Check for adequate ventilation;
  • Ensure that chemicals, including cleaning substances, are stored, handled and disposed of properly;
  • Put in place safe procedures for handling flammable substances;
  • Check for faulty or inappropriate electrical equipment;
  • Manage waste responsibly;
  • Fix bad drainage;
  • Ensure ladders and scaffolding is safe;
  • Improve poorly designed workstations;
  • Check for exposure to vibration from tools, equipment or processes;
  • Implement sufficient rest breaks;
  • Provide appropriate and well-maintained protective wear;
  • Provide appropriate training;
  • Ensure vehicle loading and unloading operations are carried out safely;
  • Check for exposure to excessive work pressure.

Evaluate the risks

Once you've identified the hazards, you need to decide what to do about them. You'll need to prioritise the hazards. Consider your existing precautions and decide whether the remaining risk of harm from a hazard is high, medium or low.

If you decide that it is low, then your existing precautions are likely to be adequate. If you decide it is high or medium, it is likely that you need to take further steps to lower the risk. Pay particular attention to the following key areas:

  • Vulnerable groups such as disabled people, trainees, those working on their own and expectant mothers;
  • Visitors - for example, cleaning and maintenance contractors, suppliers, customers and members of the public who share or pass through your premises;
  • The wider environment.

It's good practice to evaluate all risks posed by hazards in your business, whether or not they're specified by health and safety regulations.

Control workplace risks

You are not expected to eliminate all risk, but you are required to protect people as far as "reasonably practicable".

This could mean, for example:

  • Replacing old cabling;
  • Replacing hazardous materials with less harmful ones;
  • Changing behaviour or work practices;
  • Changing workplace layouts or lighting systems.

Keep records of your risk assessments

No one expects a risk assessment to be perfect - but it must be suitable and sufficient. You need to be able to show that:

  • You made a proper check;
  • You asked who might be affected;
  • You dealt with all the obvious significant hazards, taking into account the number of people who could be involved;
  • Your precautions are reasonable and the remaining risk is low;
  • You involved your staff or their representatives in the process.

Review your risk assessment regularly

Few workplaces stay the same. Sooner or later, you will bring in new equipment, substances and procedures that could lead to new hazards. It makes sense therefore, to review what you are doing on an ongoing basis. Every year or so, formally review where you are, to make sure you are still improving, or at least not sliding back.

Look at your risk assessment again. Have there been any changes? Are there improvements you still need to make? Have your workers spotted a problem? Have you learnt anything from accidents or near misses? Make sure your risk assessment stays up to date.

You should think about reviewing your risk assessment if your business:

  • Brings in new machinery or equipment;
  • Implements new processes or working practices;
  • Starts working with new substances;
  • Brings in new personnel;
  • Alters or moves premises;
  • Expands rapidly;
  • Experiences an accident or near-miss.

Please note that the information provided on this page:

  • Does not provide a complete or authoritative statement of the law;
  • Does not constitute legal advice by Net Lawman;
  • Does not create a contractual relationship;
  • Does not form part of any other advice, whether paid or free.
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