Carrying out health and safety risk assessments

A business holds responsibility for the health and safety of its employees and any members of the public with whom it comes into contact.

It is the legal obligation of a business, whatever its size, regularly to conduct what is called a risk assessment.

The point of a risk assessment is to reduce the chances of an accident happening in the workplace.

As well as assessing possible hazards in the workplace, a good risk assessment will also look at any possible harm a business might pose to the environment.

First, a couple of definitions. A hazard is anything - chemicals, machinery, ladders - that might cause harm. A risk is the chance of that hazard actually causing harm.

A business must do five things. It must identify possible hazards; it must identify who might be affected by any hazard; it must judge the risks of any harm happening and whether enough has been done to prevent any harm occurring; it must put its findings in writing (if it employs more than five people); and it must conduct such assessments frequently.

For a business where there are only a few hazards, and where the risks are easy to manage, an assessment should simply involve a careful and thorough examination of the workplace, highlighting what might reasonably be a possible source of harm.

Most hazards are fairly obvious. As is the work that might be needed to ensure the risk of any harm is reduced.

The best way of identifying hazards is to take a tour of the workplace, making sure that stairways, kitchens, washrooms and other facilities are included too. It is important to talk to any employees as they will have first-hand, daily experience of the working environment.

Employees who might be harmed by the hazards should also be identified, along with particularly vulnerable groups such the young or disabled.

The level of risk posed by the hazard should be graded as high, medium or low, and any preventative or precautionary changes should be carried out. The more precautionary measures that are introduced, the lower becomes the level of risk. A business must aim to keep all risk low.

The assessment should bet set down in writing, along with any recommended changes or work so that the hazard entails as little reasonable risk as possible.

Assessments should be conducted on a regular basis - certainly every two years. Any new equipment, or any new work methods or practices, should be reviewed for health and safety as soon as they are installed or implemented.

For many businesses, risk assessments are relatively straightforward so long as they are planned in advance. Firms that have more complex processes or health and safety issues might wish to call on the services of a specialist assessor.