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The answer to (almost) every Health and Safety question ever asked

Now that’s a bold title for a H&S Article! Unfortunately, much like most bold article titles, (I think they call this kind of thing “Clickbait”) whilst it isn’t technically a lie – it might have been designed to make you think one thing, while delivering something entirely different.

As a H&S Consultant I do find myself answering a massive number of questions with a sentence including the phrase “Risk Assessment”. This is not because I’m too scared to give you a straight answer, or because I don’t know what I’m doing – it is simply because what you “must”, “should” and “might want to consider doing”, to protect people and comply with your health and safety duties responsibilities will depend on your risk assessment.

I’m going to give you a quick run through the magical world of risk assessments as I see it, with the intention of demystifying the whole thing!

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that we’re all risk assessors, we’ve been doing it for years (in my case 36 years) and whilst we certainly do not always realise it at the time, Risk Assessment is just part of getting on with life on a daily basis.

It is not just that we have all been doing it for years that’s noteworthy; I think we’ve all got reason to suspect we’re actually quite good at it considering we’ve made it through our time on earth and find ourselves alive and reading this incredible Napthens update!

Of course, you might put that survival down to luck, chance, probability or even divine intervention but no matter how much those factors may or may not have played a part in our continued existence, we probably all underestimate how much we actually owe our lives to our ability spot the hazards around us on a daily basis. We regularly demonstrate our abilities to estimate and evaluate the risks and hazards we’ve spotted present to us, our families and friends without even thinking about it. We weigh up the pros and cons of doing and not doing things in fractions of seconds, taking into account the risks and benefits before deciding what to do.

We routinely put into place effective control strategies to reduce the risk of harm by taking action to either;

  • Avoid the risk altogether by not doing something or finding a different way to do it;
  • Taking steps to reduce the chance of harm occurring; or
  • Putting some measures in place so it hurts less if it all goes wrong.

Risk is something we face daily; assessing that risk is something we all do as part of successfully completing each daily task. If we get it wrong and perhaps fail to spot a hazard, fail to recognise the ways in which something could harm us or underestimate the potential impacts of a hazard then we get hurt and we lose but we learn. After this, our perception of that hazard changes and our understanding of the potential harm associated with that particular task is changed as a result of our experience.

We have just reviewed and updated our risk assessment again without even thinking about it. Because something went wrong, we now have reason to suspect our initial assessment of the risk is no longer valid, and we’re not going to let that happen again!

For example, just jumping in the car to drive out to visit a client, I’m at it straight away – Risk Assessment – What could go wrong, what’s the worst that could happen? I understand that despite my experience, driving puts me at risk. There are so many hazards I’m going to face between Huddersfield & Preston and the consequences of something going wrong could be catastrophic – however it’s a risk worth taking to ensure I can deliver essential services to my client – walking there might take a couple of days and wouldn’t be risk free in itself and let’s not even enter into the discussion about the trains up here!

So, exposing myself to some risk is necessary to do my job but there are simple, effective controls I can implement to reduce the risk of harm to myself and others. My car is well maintained, the tyres are in good condition, the brakes work, I’ve got loads of experience driving, I stick to the speed limit, I follow the rules of the road, I pay attention and I put my seatbelt on – just in case! If the roads are wet, I’ll adjust my driving accordingly. If and when something does go wrong or an incident occurs, I’ll learn from it.

Every activity we carry out includes some sort of risk, but without taking a calculated and suitably managed risk we would never get anything done and we would never get anywhere. We spot hazards, assess risks, think about the consequences, put controls in place and review this risk assessment when we obtain new information, or when something goes wrong.

The only thing we don’t do daily is write these risk assessments down yet risk assessment in the workplace seems to be so much more complicated than everything we’ve spoken about so far.

In the workplace a risk assessment is more than just a document, a piece of paper or an electronic file – it’s a process – a systematic method of looking at your work activities, considering what could go wrong and deciding on suitable methods of controlling hazards to prevent loss, damage or injury. Yes, in the end you’ll have a document but it’s the process that goes into creating that document and the process of keeping that document under continual review that brings about the real benefits of risk assessment.