Risk Assessment

Risk Assessment

A. What is a 'risk assessment'?

A health and safety risk assessment should be two things:

  1.  An action plan: Risk assessment is a process of identifying hazards and determining their associated risks. In practice, a risk assessment in the workplace is an examination of what could cause harm to people in that particular environment. The outcome is an action plan which helps to focus attention on reducing risks where it is needed and to prioritise any action to safeguard against harm to staff, students and visitors.
  2. An improvement cycle: Risk assessment in practice is a continual cycle of improvement. The workplace and what goes on there changes, and so too should your risk assessment. The diagram below shows that change, review and action to reduce risks are all key stages in the risk assessment process. This continual cycle helps to ensure that health and safety standards are kept high.

The Risk Assessment Process

B. Why do a risk assessment?

Pro-actively preventing occupational ill-health and accidents before they occur makes good management sense.

The latest figures from the government's Health and Safety Executive estimate that there are over one million reported injuries at work and around 1.3 million people suffering from work related ill-health each year in the UK.

Apart from the suffering caused to victims and their families, there are also the financial costs to the University when things go wrong. These can range from the immediate costs of interrupted service, to longer term losses which are often less obvious.

You know your department and the practices that go on there well. Your knowledge and experience means that you can accommodate health and safety within the needs of your department, and make any risk assessment appropriate to it.

C. Risk assessment key principles: defining a 'hazard'

A key part of risk assessment is identifying the hazards that occur in the work environment.

It's really important to understand that 'hazard', by definition, is an entirely separate term from 'risk'.

A 'hazard' can be defined as something which has the potential to cause harm.

Examples of hazards that you might find in the workplace are varied and numerous.

Mechanical Hazards:

Contact with moving parts on machinery can have serious consequences, ranging from cuts, bruises and punctured skin to crushed limbs, amputation and even fatality.

Physical Hazards:

Slips, Trips and Falls: HSE statistics reveal that slips, trips and falls account for over one third of all reported injuries in the workplace. Obstacles on the ground where people walk, wet or damaged flooring, poor visibility, and even just inappropriate footwear can all cause harm - which makes them hazards. Working at height also poses a particular danger because the distance to fall is greater, and so therefore is the likelihood of injury.

Moving Objects: Around 70 workers are killed each year in the UK as a result of being struck by a moving vehicle. Accidents involving moving vehicles also account for around one fifth of all reported major workplace injuries. Any workplace transport or piece of mobile equipment, however commonplace, can pose a serious hazard.

A further 20 per cent of fatalities and 15 per cent of major injuries in the workplace each year are caused by falling or moving objects. Methods of storage and working practice have a large part to play in harm from such hazards being realised.

Chemical Hazards:

Hazardous chemical substances can cause skin or eye irritations, respiratory problems, loss of consciousness, poisoning and long term health problems such as cancers.

Ergonomic Hazards:

'Ergonomics' describe the way humans relate to their working environment. Certain work activities can lead to health problems or injury if they're carried out in an unsuitable work environment.

Ergonomic hazards can include things like poor seating and workstation design - if these aren't suited to the people who use them, they can cause both short term discomfort and longer term problems like musculo-skeletal disorders.

Poor services like heating, lighting and ventilation, can also lead to health problems either directly or indirectly. Bad lighting for example not only causes eye strain and long term sight difficulties, but also increases the chances of other workplace hazards causing harm - simply because people can't see them!

Manual Handling:

Every year, over a third of all reported workplace injuries lasting over 3 days are the result of people handling, lifting or carrying loads. Most injuries caused by manual handling are to the back, though injury to other body parts - either from handling or dropping heavy loads - is common.

Manual handling is something that occurs in all work environments. Since even minor movements can cause problems if they're repeated frequently or if the wrong handling technique is adopted, it's a hazard that is often misjudged.

Electrical hazards:

There are about 1000 reported accidents at work involving electricity each year in the UK. About three per cent of these are fatal. Contact with live parts at even normal mains voltage can kill, or at the very least cause severe shock and burns.

Electrical faults can also be an ignition source in fires or explosion, so equipment and systems that use electricity can be dangerous hazards if they aren't used and maintained correctly, for example by regular Portable Appliance Testing (PAT).


Stress can affect anyone, no matter what type of job you do, so it's a potential hazard in all workplaces. Stress can be the cause of mental and physical health problems ranging from insomnia to depression and high blood pressure. Being under stress in certain types of working environments can also lead to accidents.

The causes of work-related stress are varied and numerous, and different people are affected by different stress-factors.Stress can be related to:

  • The demands of a job - having too much or too little to do.
  • Changes in work practices or the environment.
  • A lack of control over work activities.
  • Poor relationships between co-workers or between management and staff.

Just as the causes are varied, the syptoms of stress can also manifest themselves in many different ways. The outward signs can include:

  • Irritability or altered mood.
  • Indecisiveness
  • Complaints of tiredness or headaches.
  • Reduced performance.
  • Absenteeism.

D. Risk assessment key principles: defining 'risk'

In health and safety terms 'risk' is closely associated with 'hazard'. It's important to recognise though that the two terms mean different things.

In the previous section, we defined a hazard as something with the potential to cause harm. The best way to describe risk is to say that it's the likelihood of that harm actually occurring.

Assessing Risks:

We all unconsciously assess risks as a normal part of our everyday lives. For example when you want cross a busy road you'll judge the speed and distance of the oncoming traffic and then make a decision as to whether you can safely cross before it arrives.

To categorise risks you need to consider how likely it is that harm will occur in a particular situation, as well as how severe the harmful outcome could be. Considering these two factors together means a risk can be judged as high, medium, low or insignificant.

Prioritising action and avoiding risks:

Categorising risk is an important part of risk assessment because it allows you to focus attention on reducing risks where it's needed most - where accidents are most likely to happen.

The most important principle of risk assessment is to try to avoid risks altogether. When you identify risks in your workplace, the best possible outcome of your risk assessment would be that the risks are eliminated.

The most effective way to avoid risks is to simply remove the hazard. In the real world this isn't always an option. If that's the case then attention needs to be turned to reducing the risk of the hazard causing harm as far as is reasonably possible. What the law says is 'reasonable' is covered in more detail later on.

E. What the law requires

Health and safety laws and regulations can be very wordy and hard to understand sometimes. There's certainly no need for you to plough through everything out there in order to fulfil your health and safety responsibilities. Some important terms that you do need to be aware of however are listed below:

'Suitable and Sufficient'

The Management of Health and Safety at Work regulations state, a workplace risk assessment must be 'suitable and sufficient’. This term is very open to interpretation and can cause uncertainty. Don't worry though! It's intended to allow you some flexibility so that your risk assessment doesn't have to be overcomplicated, but just appropriate to your particular business.

'Reasonably practicable'

The second important term in the legislation comes from the Health and Safety at Work Act, which states that employers must take action to reduce health and safety risks as far as is 'reasonably practicable.' This means that you need to take measures to safeguard occupational wherever possible, but without stretching to excessive costs over health and safety gains.

Imagine a pair of scales with cost on one side and risk on the other. Cost includes finances, time and other resources. If the risk from a hazard outweighs the cost of reducing the risk, action must be taken. If costs substantially outweigh risks, take less costly action, or no action if there are no alternatives. So for example, spending £5000 to prevent the occasional bruised finger would not be reasonable, but spending £50 on a machine guard to stop an arm amputation would be.

'Five or more employees'

The other main requirement that the regulations state for risk assessment is that if there are 5 or more employees in a business, then the significant findings must be recorded. In reality, it's much easier to write everything down anyway, as it means you don't miss or repeat anything.

Question: What is 'suitable and sufficient'?

Approved Codes of Practice (ACOP) for health and safety regulations say that a 'suitable and sufficient' risk assessment should take into account the following:

  1. Any risks arising from or in connection with work:  This includes any work happening away from the main site. You must also take into account that different groups of people may be more vulnerable than others. For example young or inexperienced employees can be at a higher risk. The law requires that a specific assessment is made for activities where young people are involved.
  2. All the people who may be affected by your business's activities: You need consider everyone - from staff, students, visitors to passers by - anyone who could be affected by what your business is doing.
  3. Activities covered by specific regulations If there's work going on that involves activities or materials that have specific health and safety regulations referring to them (such as the manual handling or COSHH regulations) then these must have a separate risk assessment. This can be included in your main risk assessment if it's simple enough.
  4. The assessment and subsequent action must address the risks and how these can be reduced as far as possible: This is very important as the risk assessment alone is not enough to comply with legal requirements, it has to be followed up with the necessary action to actually reduce risks in the workplace.

In the next section, you will see how to take a structured approach to the risk assessment process by breaking it down into steps. This makes it easier to be sure your risk assessment covers everything it needs to, making it 'suitable and sufficient’

F. The five steps to risk assessment

There are five generally recognised steps to completing a risk assessment. These five steps can be used as a guide to help you think about the areas which you're required - by law - to cover in a risk assessment.

Working the five steps will involve some careful preparation, the process of actually assessing the risks and then taking action to reduce risks.

In order to properly complete the steps, risk assessors need to have a good knowledge of the business, the workforce and activities going on.

The five steps to risk assessment are listed below. Click on them to see what each step involves in a bit more detail.

Step One: Identify the Hazards

Step Two: Decide Who is at Risk

Step Three: Assess the Risks and Existing Control Measures

Step Four: Record your Findings

Step Five: Monitor and Review

G. The principles of prevention

When it comes to implementing measures to control risks in the workplace, it's important to understand that different types of controls vary in terms of how effective they are at reducing a risks.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work regulations outline a set of principles to apply when you're deciding on what action to take to reduce risks in your workplace.

Some of these were covered in the earlier 'key principles' section on risk, but there's also some others you need to make sure you're aware of:

Wherever possible, avoid risks altogether This is the most important principle in good health and safety management.

Always try to combat risks at their source For example if you have slippery stairs, treating or replacing them is better than putting up a warning sign.

Adapt work to requirements of the individual This involves talking to colleagues and considering how suited everyone is to the tasks they have to do. Your aim should be to pace work correctly and alleviate monotony.

Take advantage of technological progress Opportunities to improve working methods and make them safer can arise when new equipment is developed. Try to take advantage of this where possible.

Give priority to measures which protect the whole workplace Collective measures give the greatest benefit and should therefore take priority over individual measures.

Ensure all workers understand what they must do Communication is vital to ensure the successful implementation of health and safety measures to protect everybody.

Note: Risk controls and their cost should be offset against the level of risk identified. In general the most effective control should always be implemented to reduce the risk as far a possible. However when a particular control involves excessive costs compared to the safety gains it’s usually acceptable to consider a less effective control.

H. The hierarchy of controls

This list of control measures is ordered according to effectiveness at reducing risks. To choose the best control for any risk, begin by considering the most effective option, and then only considering the next option on the list if the more effective one can’t be used.

Eliminate The best way to reduce a risk is to remove the hazard. E.g. using a trolley instead of carrying eliminates a manual handling hazard.

Substitute If you can’t remove it altogether, substitute the hazard for something less risky. E.g. cleaning products with bleach can be harmful. Another product without bleach might do the same job.

Contain Preventing access or containing a hazard is usually done by means of barriers - for example a guard over a sharp blade or keeping hazardous chemicals in a locked cupboard. This is an important measure where removing the hazard altogether is not feasible.

Reduce Exposure Reducing exposure to a hazard means you’re reducing the likelihood of harm occurring and so reducing the risk. E.g. computer users can lower the risk of upper limb disorders by doing tasks away from their PC every so often.

Training and Supervision Information, training and supervision help to make sure people follow procedures and are aware of the risks when working with hazards. These measures only work together with other controls.

Personal Protective Equipment The law says PPE must be supplied and used at work wherever there’s a risk that can’t be adequately controlled in other ways. It’s always better to control risks at source than to protect from the outcome. People often don't use PPE properly if they find it annoying, so it should always be a last resort when risks can’t be controlled any other way.

Welfare Facilities If facilities for washing or first aid are on hand for quick treatment after an accident, the extent of injury can sometimes be controlled. It’s always better to prevent accidents occurring in the first place. Welfare should only ever serve as a back-up for emergencies if all other controls fail. Other information

I. Other information

Copies of Approved Codes of Practice are available from the Health & Safety Coordinator ext 5176 or e-mail c.fry@worc.ac.uk

Risk Assessment Form Template

Managers Guidance & Risk Assessment for New/Expectant Mothers

General Risk Assessments for rooms and other safety issues can be found at:

'O' Drive - All Staff Documents - Personnel - Risk Assessments