How to Conduct an Effective Risk Assessment

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by Rudi Nieuwoudt

A Risk assessment is the starting point of any effective HSE Management system and is literally the basis for everything you will be implementing in your organization to ensure the health and safety of your employees as well as protecting the environment. Workplace risk assessments may be conducted differently at different companies. However, there are some basic steps that should be part of every company’s workplace risk assessment. These steps can be tailored easily to company and industry needs in order to make sure companies comply with laws and regulations that govern different industries. Many of the risks employees face in the workplace are easy to spot and don’t require a complex solution.

Identify the Hazard

Take a walk through your workplace to identify hazards. Some hazards may be easy to identify and others may require some assistance from other professionals outside of your business (ie. health and safety experts, machinists, etc.). You will want to observe employees completing their daily tasks in order to identify additional risks and to see if there could be an easier way for them to complete tasks. 

There are many types of workplace hazards, which tend to come under four main categories:

  • physical hazards – the most common workplace hazards, including vibration, noise and slips, trips and falls;
  • ergonomic hazards – physical factors that harm the musculoskeletal system, such as repetitive movement, manual handling and poor body positioning;
  • chemical hazards – any hazardous substance that can cause harm to your employees;
  • biological hazards – bacteria and viruses that can cause health effects, such as hepatitis, HIV/AIDS and Legionnaire’s disease.

Decide Who Could be Harmed and In What Way

Establish groups that are affected by the risks and hazards you identified in your search. To see the bigger picture, understand that there are groups outside of your workplace that might be harmed if corrective action is not taken.

Record the ways that they could be harmed if the hazard or risk is not corrected and review the list with your employees to see if there is anything else they have to add.

The HSE provides some examples of groups that could be harmed:

  • Members of the public – consumers, people in nearby neighborhoods, etc.
  • People who are not in the workplace every day – contractors, cleaners, visitors, etc.
  • Various types of employees – new employees, expectant mothers, those with disabilities all face different types of risks in the workplace.

Determine the Initial risk rating by means of a Risk Matrix.

The initial risk rating is used as a basis for choosing adequate control measures to reduce the risk posed by the hazards you identified. This rating determines when and what action should be taken. 

So what is a Risk Matrix?

A risk matrix is a matrix that is used to define the level of risk by considering the category of probability or likelihood against the category of consequence severity. This is a simple mechanism to increase visibility of risks and assist decision making. It also takes "personal preference" out of the equation because it is important to remember that we all perceive risk differently due to our own life experiences. 

RUANSA Risk Matrix

Establish Control Measures

Control measures are the things you put in place to reduce risk and prevent harm. The best control measure is elimination. This means to eliminate the risk completely. Of course, this is the best control measure, because you are removing the risk entirely. While in theory, it may be possible to eliminate every risk. In practice, this would mean you and your team sitting in a padded room, away from any tools or equipment and not getting any work done. This is not good for any business. 

What elimination is actually about, is eliminating those risks that are unnecessary. For example, working at height creates a high level of risk, so if the work can be done at ground level (e.g. using extendable poles or raising and lowering equipment) then this is a risk that can be eliminated.

What about when elimination can't be used? What if the work has to be carried out at roof height and there is no getting around it. This is where the hierarchy of controls come in. 

1. Elimination

We have already discussed this earlier on in this post, and elimination should always be the first control measure you consider.

Can this risk be removed entirely from this activity?

Examples of elimination:

  • Use extendable tools to eliminate work at height
  • Materials delivered cut to size to remove the use of blades
  • Cordless equipment to get rid of trailing cables

2. Substitution

Substitution is the second best control measure you could use.

Maybe the risk cannot be removed entirely, but could it be reduced by replacing the material, substance or process with something less dangerous?

Examples of substitution:

  • Replacing ladders with tower scaffolds
  • Substituting a hazardous chemical with a safer alternative
  • Changing high-level vibrating equipment with newer equipment with less vibration exposure

3. Engineering controls

Third on our list, are engineering controls. These are usually fixed temporary or permanent controls.

Engineering controls could be collective (protecting all workers e.g. edge protection for work at height) or individual (protecting a single user e.g. anchor points for connecting via lanyard). Give priority to measures which protect collectively over individual measures.

Examples of engineering controls:

  • Extraction machines to remove hazardous dust or fumes from the air
  • Enclosing dangerous items of machinery or moving parts
  • Installing guard rails to fall hazards

4. Administrative controls

At number four, we have administrative controls. While this type of control is lower down on the list it will often be an essential part of your control measures.

These are rules and systems to carry out the work. What are the procedures you need to work safely?

Examples of administrative controls:

  • Limiting use of vibrating equipment below exposure action values

  • Banning work at height and lifting operations in bad weather

  • Enforcing a one-way traffic system on site

5. Personal protective clothes and equipment

Last, but not least on our list, is personal protective clothing and equipment (PPE).

PPE is the last line of defence against a hazard, so while it shouldn't be your first choice when controlling risks, it can give added protection for any remaining level of risk, or should other controls fail.

Examples of PPE:

  • Use of ear defenders when using noisy equipment
  • Harnesses and lanyards where the risk of falls cannot be eliminated completely
  • Hard hats where there may be falls of tools or materials overhead

Record the Findings of Your Assessment and Inform Those at Risk of the Controls

Communicate your findings and proposed solutions to all employees. It might also be a good time to provide some additional training regarding any changes to procedures, updates to your health and safety policy and to provide a “refresher” session to employees to remind them that they have their responsibilities in ensuring a safe workplace.

Review your risk assessment regularly.

It is important to know if your risk assessment was complete and accurate. It is also essential to be sure that any changes in the workplace have not introduced new hazards or changed hazards that were once ranked as lower priority to a higher priority.

It is good practice to review your assessment on a regular basis to make sure your control methods are effective.