Legal

How to avoid mistakes when conducting risk assessments

6 May 2021 By Nick Wilson

It’s essential for businesses to properly evaluate risk, but many are getting it wrong. Nick Wilson offers his top tips based on the most common oversights

Covid has brought the importance of risk assessment to the forefront of people’s minds in the past 12 months. As a systematic approach to identifying hazards and evaluating any associated risks within a workplace, it is the foundation of an effective safety management system.

Not only is it a legal requirement under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and so many other pieces of legislation, but conducting ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessments will help you to recognise and control hazards, raise awareness and reduce incidents, thereby protecting your employees and your organisation. It is essential to get it right. However, things can be missed, which leaves the door open to accidents and ill health. Indeed, most serious safety incidents in the UK could have been avoided had risks been properly assessed and managed.

All too often, my colleagues and I find that businesses do not have risk assessments in place or, if they do, they lack specific information, have not been conducted by a person familiar with the task or environment in question and are not regularly reviewed. In many cases, staff simply aren’t aware that a risk assessment exists.

With this in mind, here are 12 top tips based on the common mistakes we see employers make when compiling risk assessments:

Make it relevant to those who matter most 

Collaborate with others, particularly those who undertake the activity that is being assessed to ensure it is suitable and sufficient. Risk assessment is not a singular effort.

Equip staff appropriately

Those who complete risk assessments must be competent to do so. Competence can be defined as those with the necessary knowledge, ability, training and experience (KATE) to identify hazards and implement sensible, proportionate solutions.

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance, together with interactive e-learning courses, can be a practical approach to upskill those with responsibility for conducting risk assessments in organisations with a low risk profile, whereas risk assessor training packages are a great way to build competence within more complex businesses.

Consider how a person can be injured

Quite often the terms hazard and risk are confused. The hazard – something that has the potential to cause harm – must be identified separately and against it a description provided as to the risk of how somebody could come to harm. For example, a rotating drill is a hazard and becoming entangled in it leading to significant injury is the risk.

Reference applicable guidance

Look at what is available from the HSE, trade associations and other expert organisations to ensure you are following industry best practice and, where appropriate, reference this in your risk assessment.

Cross reference with other assessments

Look at what already exists in your organisation to prevent duplication and/or possible contradictory messages. 

Avoid generic, ambiguous terms

For example, ‘heavy’ and ‘PPE’. Instead, use more precise weight measurements, for example, ‘<25kg’, and be explicit with the PPE to be worn and the standard of the item (which is usually found within the item itself or in the manufacturer’s instructions). Similarly, be specific with your statements, for example: ‘A person will/must/shall use hearing protection.’

Consider likely points

Any risk assessment tends to require consideration of:

  • access/egress;
  • health monitoring/surveillance;
  • maintenance and inspections;
  • pre-use checks;
  • previous accidents/near misses;
  • safe systems of work for higher-risk activities/tasks/equipment;
  • start-up/stop under normal conditions and isolation for maintenance; and
  • training.

It is important that your risk assessments, particularly for machinery, consider normal operating conditions and non-routine activities such as maintenance, inspection and cleaning.

Provide a defined matrix with definitions

This is applicable if you are using a quantitative scoring system.

Communicate the findings

Communicate what you have found in your risk assessments to staff and obtain documented evidence that they have seen this using the most appropriate medium.

Review risk assessments often

Ensure it is reviewed at least annually or whenever there is a change that causes you to believe it may no longer be suitable and sufficient. An accident at work should invite you to review the adequacy of any relevant risk assessment.

Have an index in place

This should list all assessments and the dates reviews are required to provide a quick reference guide. Ensure you stick to these dates.

Refine general risk assessments

You may choose to create general risk assessments that reflect certain activities that are common throughout the workplace and across other sites. This is a good starting point, but make sure the recipients of such risk assessments modify them if necessary, so that they are specific and reflect conditions onsite.

Relieve the stress of risk assessment

There are numerous tools and plenty of advice available to simplify risk assessment and help you stay compliant. Software that allows you to monitor actions, build your own assessments and view your risk status in real-time is growing in popularity. 

If you are in any doubt about how to conduct a risk assessment fit for your specific environment, you should contact a qualified health and safety practitioner.

Nick Wilson is a former HSE inspector, a chartered safety practitioner and director of health and safety services at Ellis Whittam

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