The key to complying with your legal duties for health and safety is carrying out a risk assessment. The assessment itself is nothing more than 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 whether you need to do more.
The most important decision to make is whether a hazard is significant and whether you have it covered by satisfactory precautions so that the risk is small. For example, electricity can kill but the chance of it doing so in an office environment is minimal, provided that live components are insulated and metal casings properly earthed.
The law says that risk assessments need to be ‘adequate’ or ‘suitable and sufficient’. This means that if your business’ risks are straightforward and easy to control, your risk assessment will also be simple.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) cites five key steps to carrying out a risk assessment. They are:
1. Look for the hazards. Walk around your workplace and look at what might cause harm. Concentrate on significant hazards that could result in serious harm or affect a number of people. Ask your employees what they think – their roles might involve different areas of the building or different tasks that you are less familiar with. Read manufacturers’ instructions and data sheets to help you identify possible hazards too.
2. Decide who might be harmed and how. Consider all visitors to the premises, from employees to trainees, expectant mothers, cleaners, contractors and members of the public.
3. Evaluate the risks and decide whether the existing precautions are adequate or whether more should be done. By considering the seriousness of each hazard you will be able to decide whether you need to do more to reduce the level of risk. For each significant hazard decide whether the remaining risk is high, medium or low. Have you done everything that is ‘reasonably practicable’ to keep your workplace safe?
4. Record your findings. If you have fewer than five employees you do not need to write anything down. But if you employ five or more people you must make a record of what your assessment reveals, such as significant hazards and conclusions. You must also tell your employees about your findings, informing them about safe working methods, protective clothing and workplace rules.
5. Review your assessment and revise it if necessary. If you bring in new machines, substances or procedures that could lead to new hazards, you need to add to the assessment and do whatever is necessary to minimise risks. It is also good practice to review your assessment on a regular basis to ensure precautions are still working effectively.
But don’t be overcomplicated. For most firms in the commercial, service and light industrial sectors, the hazards are few and simple. Checking them is common sense, advises the HSE, but necessary. You will probably already know if you have machinery or equipment that will cause harm, or if there is an entrance or set of stairs that are likely to present a problem.
Small firms can often do the assessment themselves, but if you are not confident you can get help from an HSE adviser.