Health and safety risk assessments

Risk assessment is a careful examination of what, in your work, could cause harm to people, so that you can weigh up whether you have taken enough precautions or should do more to prevent harm.

The aim is to make sure no one gets hurt or becomes ill.

By law, you must assess risks in your workplace.

What are hazards and risks?

A hazard is anything with the potential to cause harm (e.g. chemicals, electricity, working from ladders, etc).

A risk is the chance (high or low) that someone will be harmed by the hazard.

The important things you need to decide are whether a hazard is significant and whether you have covered it by satisfactory precautions so that the risk is small. This is what you check when you carry out a risk assessment.

For instance, electricity is a hazard that can kill, but the risk of it doing so in an office environment is low, provided that the ‘live’ components are insulated and metal casing is earthed.

5 steps of risk assessment

Step 1: Look for the hazards

Walk around your workplace and look at what could reasonably be expected to cause harm. Ignore the trivial and concentrate on significant hazards that could result in serious harm or could affect several people.

Ask your employees or their representatives what they think. They may have noticed things which are not immediately obvious.

Use manufacturer’s instructions, data hazard sheets and accident and ill health records.

Step 2: Decide who might be harmed and how

As well as the general employees, there could be vulnerable staff (such as young workers pregnant women) who may be at particular risk.

Visitors, contractors, maintenance workers etc. who may not be in the workplace all the time nor understand full what activities take place may be at risk.

Members of the public may also be at risk, or those you share your workplace with, if there is a chance they could be hurt by your activities (e.g. moving stock in a shop).

Step 3: Evaluate the risks and decide if existing precautions are adequate

Consider how likely it is that each hazard could cause harm. This will determine whether or not you need to do more to reduce the risk.

Even after all precautions have been taken some risk usually remains.

What you have to decide for each significant hazard is whether this remaining risk is high, medium or low.

First, ask yourself whether you have done all that the law asks you to do (e.g. there are legal requirements on prevention of access to dangerous parts of machinery).

Then, ask whether generally accepted industry standards are in place.

But don’t stop there – the law says that you must do what you reasonably can to keep your workplace safe.

Your real aim is to make all risks as small as possible. This can be done by adding precautions.

If you find that something needs to be done, draw up an ‘action list’ and give priority to any remaining risks which are high or those which could affect most people.

You need to consider whether you can get rid of the hazard altogether or, if not, how to control the risks so that harm is unlikely.

In controlling risks, apply the principles below:

  • Try less hazardous options
  • Prevent access to the hazard (e.g. guarding)
  • Reduce exposure to the hazard
  • Issue personal protective equipment
  • Provide welfare facilities (e.g. washing facilities for removal of any contaminants)

Improving health and safety need not cost a lot (e.g. placing a mirror on a dangerous blind corner to increase visibility will help prevent vehicle accidents; this is inexpensive considering the risks).

Failure to take simple precautions can cost you a lot more if an accident does happen.

Step 4: Record your findings

If you have less than 5 employees you do not need to write anything down, though it would be useful.

With 5 or more employees you must record the significant findings of your assessment.

Example record

Risk assessment record
Existing controls
Electrical installations
Insulation and earthing checked
Fumes from welding
Local exhaust ventilation provided and regularly checked

It is important that you bring the findings of these assessments to the attention of your employees.

In complying with the law, the risk assessments must be suitable and sufficient.

You need to show that:

  • A proper assessment has been made
  • All the obvious significant hazards have been dealt with
  • The precautions are reasonable and the risk remains low

These written records may be requested by a Health and Safety Inspector during a routine inspection or accident investigation to ensure that you have adequately assessed the hazards and associated risks to your employees and others who may be affected during the course of your business.

If you become involved in action for civil liability, such records can demonstrate that you had taken reasonable steps to prevent harm.

Step 5: Review your assessment and revise if necessary

As your business continues, there may be new machines, substances and procedures which could lead to new hazards. With any significant change, you must review the risk and, if necessary, amend it.

If a new job introduces significant new hazards of its own then, again, you must review this risk assessment and amend it to take account of the new hazards and the risks associated with the new operation. It is good practice to review risk assessments from time to time, anyway, to ensure that the precautions are still working effectively.

Specific requirements and guidance

Specific requirements and guidance can be found in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.