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Risk assessment: A frontline issue

23 January 2013

Gary Fallaize takes a look at where risk assessment is going wrong The high profile health and safety stories that have hit the headlines – from banning sack races and conker fights to the use of goggles in swimming po

Gary Fallaize takes a look at where risk assessment is going wrong

The high profile health and safety stories that have hit the headlines - from banning sack races and conker fights to the use of goggles in swimming pools - are derided by health and safety professionals as myths. These and other incidents have arisen because people on the ground don't understand how to assess risk. The end result is the potential 'cause' of risk gets banned as this is seen as far simpler than putting a health and safety strategy in place.

It's not that risk assessment skills and knowledge don't reside in major organisations. Major companies will of course have health and safety experts who know all about risk assessment. The problem is that these organisations have a disconnect. The staff on the ground - be they head teachers, store managers, site workers or production personnel - are the ones having to make quick health and safety decisions and they simply don't know how to assess risk.

The Danger in 'Playing Safe' It is easy to see how, if you have limited knowledge, are operating in a high profile environment and are nervous of the perceived compensation culture, it may seem easier just to say 'no' to something.

But having a 'just in case' mentality leads organisations to lose touch with reality.

Confidence and respect for health and safety becomes so undermined that its ability to actually protect is diminished.

Remember, risk brings not only the potential for harm or loss but also growth opportunities for both individuals and businesses. The challenge is to minimise the negatives and maximise the positives by good risk management.

Furthermore this 'disconnects' also means that perversely actually dangerous situations are missed. This is because the health and safety professional at head office, who is setting the wider strategy, is out of touch with day to day frontline challenges. Operational staff have a better understanding of where the dangers are - 'that awkward slippery floor, the temp who comes in on a Wednesday, the tricky entrance to the carpark where prangs happen' - they just lack the confidence of 'applying' what they know - or possibly think risk assessment is much more complicated than it is.

So how can health and safety personnel at head office ensure front line staff grasp this essential skill?

Here are some quick tips Firstly, my advice to anyone undertaking risk assessment is don't over complicate it; in most cases companies are aware of the risks in their organisation, such as, employees moving heavy loads etc. They just need a plan and reasonable precautions in place.

Secondly, don't lose sight of its purpose. Risk assessment is not a paper chase - the findings need to be implemented. So don't over-engineer the assessment and then either neglect implementation altogether or do it poorly. There is a well-known aphorism "too many decisions are measured with a micrometer, marked with chalk and cut with an axe" i.e. lots of effort in planning, poor execution. Sound familiar? Also don't forget the "human factor".

The new recruit is very different from the worker who has been with you for 20 years. Furthermore there are others who come on to your site - cleaners, visitors, contractors, maintenance workers, etc who may not be in the workplace all the time, may have a very different perception of risk but may be impacted by or involved in your activities.

Finally - do think about formal training. It needn't be that difficult to drive through your organisation. Risk assessment training will prevent organisation from 'falling' into the many health and safety traps that arise when staff and suppliers are not properly trained and courses such as our Rapid Results course take less than 6 hours to complete and take the user through the principles of risk assessment in five simple steps.

Gary Fallaize is managing director of RRC Training

The tragic cost of ignoring risk assessment Every day we read about compelling cases that highlight why risk assessment is so important. For instance only a few weeks ago Hamilton Farmers from East Lothian were hit with a five-figure fine after an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that they had not conducted a suitable risk assessment for the work carried out - sadly one of their employees had been crushed to death when a one-tonne pre-cast concrete panel fell on him.

A Buckinghamshire-based waste disposal company was fined after a member of the public was crushed to death. The company pleaded guilty to failing to carry out adequate risk assessment of the garden waste tipping area to ensure people other than employees were suitably protected.