Risk assessment

Article reference: UK-IA-HSE17
Last updated: December 2020 | 6 min read

As an employer, you have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace under the Management of Health and Safety of Work Regulations and other H&S law. You are not expected to eliminate all risk, but you are required to protect people as far as "reasonably practicable".

Accidents and ill health can ruin lives and affect your business if output is lost, machinery is damaged, insurance costs increase or you have to go to court.

Most risks can be identified and controlled. 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.

An assessment need not be time consuming. Once you've completed one, it is important to change the workplace to reduce any risks identified. 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 regularly to make sure that it remains effective.

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

You are legally required to assess the risks in your workplace so that you put in place a plan to control them.

You must decide what in your workplace could cause harm to employees, contractors and members of the public.

There are five steps to any risk assessment:

  • identify the hazards, such as those posed by hazardous substances

  • 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

You shouldn'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.

Identification of risks and hazards

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.

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 or noise, for example. It can be something general, such as poor lighting. Or it can be something specific to your business, such as the particular 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

Identify who is most at risk

For each hazard be clear about who may be harmed.

These may be employees, or they may be other people who interact with your business, such as suppliers or customers. You should consider people who may not be on business premises all the time.

Identifying who is at risk allows you to decide what to do to mitigate the risk to them.

Evaluate the risks

Once you've identified the hazards, you need to prioritise them and decide what to do about them. You should 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:

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

Record the risks and implement reduction strategies

No one expects a risk assessment to be perfect - but it must be suitable and sufficient. To meet your legal obligation, 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

You then need to take action to reduce high risks. These might include:

  • tidying up loose or trailing cabling

  • changing wet, slippery, unclean or badly surfaced floors

  • ensuring all areas are well lit

  • checking for adequate ventilation

  • ensuring that chemicals, including cleaning substances, are stored, handled and disposed of properly

  • putting in place safe procedures for handling flammable substances

  • checking for faulty or inappropriate electrical equipment

  • managing waste responsibly

  • fixing bad drainage

  • ensuring ladders and scaffolding is safe

  • improving poorly designed workstations

  • checking for exposure to vibration from tools, equipment or processes

  • implementing sufficient rest breaks

  • providing appropriate and well-maintained protective wear

  • providing appropriate training

  • ensuring vehicle loading and unloading operations are carried out safely

  • checking for exposure to excessive work pressure

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.

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

Further information

You may want to read about fire safety risk assessments next. These are required under specific law.

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