Thoroughly risk-assess your workplace

You have the job of ensuring risk assessments are performed for the business. Where do you start, and where do you finish? The trick is to start with a helicopter view, then follow down to the detail, similar to the process you use to map out procedures.

Workcover divides hazards into 5 categories:

  • physical – noise, radiation, light, vibration
  • chemical – poisons, dusts
  • biological – viruses, plants, parasites
  • mechanical/electrical – slips, trips and falls, tools, electrical equipment
  • psychological – fatigue, violence, bullying

I’d like to add a 6th category: environmental impact. For this one, however, rather than looking at whether our employees are safe, we look at protecting the earth and all the other people who inhabit it. This is usually an important component of any company’s risk management strategy, and is often monitored by government and regulatory bodies.

What we are going to do now is work our way down from a big picture view to a detailed analysis of risk. At every stage we consider all the possible hazards.

You can start by looking at your environment and determining if you have any of these hazards. It’s not difficult. What sort of climate are you in? Are you sheltered from the weather, the extremes of hot or cold or wet or dehydration, or wind and storms, or floods and tidal waves? Is there sufficient oxygen and is the air free from dust and chemicals? Are you protected from animals and pests or violence from humans? (Is your plant in a war zone?) Are you positioned near a cliff, or a river or unstable land or buildings, or in an earthquake zone? Hopefully you’ve selected a worksite without severe environmental hazards. Whilst these seem pretty obvious, if you are accustomed to living in a dangerous environment, it is possible to overlook these hazards and the need to control them for your employees. Also, is positioning the business here going to cause significant environmental impact?

Look at your premises. Are they fit for purpose? Are there any potential hazards associated with them? Have they been built safely? Are the construction materials safe and unlikely to harbour pests or bacteria? Is the flooring even and easily cleaned, but not slippery? Is there adequate lighting? Are there any unguarded holes or ditches or confined spaces? Is there adequate space to move around equipment? Are heights and stairs well-guarded? Are walkways marked and pedestrians separated from mobile equipment? Are large vessels built and maintained to ensure they contain materials, and bunded to contain potential leaks or leaching of chemicals by rainwater?

Many companies don’t specifically evaluate how their human resources policies impact on risk, but they are crucial in not only managing risk in this age of increasing litigation, but also in maintaining a positive workplace, which has all sorts of benefits to the company. Evaluate your policies and company culture. Do you have well-communicated company values? Do you have a clear and enforced policy on discrimination and sexual harassment? Do you expect your employees to be courteous to other employees and suppliers as well as to customers? Do you look after your employees, provide thorough training, encourage a work-life balance, monitor and discourage regular long hours and show they are appreciated? Is the workplace clean and aesthetically pleasing? Do you provide adequate facilities? Do you spread the workload to minimise stress?

The next step is to evaluate all of your equipment. This is nice and straightforward, too, although it may be tedious. Take an inventory of all plant, equipment and materials in your workplace, and I mean all. Include simple tools, raw materials, however harmless they may seem, and utilities such as power, water, steam, gas and sewer. Now you can look at each one of them in turn. Are moving parts and pinchpoints on machines well-guarded? Are noise, dust, chemicals, radiation and harmful biological materials contained? Are tools in good order and not likely to snap or slip? Is piping appropriate for the chemical being carried and in good order? Is regular maintenance scheduled to ensure equipment remains in good order?

Many people feel that risk assessment is complete at this stage, but can you see why this is not effective? Most incidents do not occur when people are just standing in a workplace, minding their own business. Most incidents are the result of actions, when people are performing the jobs. So to thoroughly assess risks you need to evaluate potential hazards from working in the business, actually doing the job. To do this, you need to know all of the tasks and all of the steps for each task. In other words, you need to have thorough, written procedures before you can do a thorough risk assessment.

Following your procedures you consider the likely hazards associated with performing each step. This is where most manual handling hazards occur, which is not explicitly covered in the hazard groups. When assessing hazards associated with performing tasks, you also need to consider what can go wrong and the instinctive reactions that may occur. For example, if something is about to fall, people instinctively reach to catch it, even if it is too heavy for them or red-hot. Consider instinctive responses such as if machinery jams or materials are caught. How many workplace injuries have occurred when material has jammed in poorly guarded machines and someone has reached in to clear it?

Once your risk assessment for each procedure has been completed, and you have decided on controls, you then need to highlight the hazards and write the controls into your procedures. Unfortunately this means you need to write your procedures, perform risk assessments, then revise procedures. This is not such a bad thing, because in doing so you can improve both your risk management and your processes.

Remember, for thorough, realistic risk assessments you not only need to identify hazards in the workplace, you need to define every task that is being done and evaluate the risks associated with performing every step of every task, considering what could go wrong at every step. Write your procedures and apply risk management to each one, then rewrite procedures incorporating controls. And ensure you revise your risk assessments and your procedures if any changes are made to processes.

For help with writing procedures, read my book, call me on +61(0)412 302055 or email me at: