The requirement to carry out risk assessments has been a fundamental part of United Kingdom health and safety legislation for a good number of years now, but is the requirement to carry out risk assessments truly embedded in the health and safety culture?
Having carried out numerous health and safety incident investigations I would suggest that there is still some way to go before a risk assessment is regarded as just one of the tools an employee needs to use, in a similar manner to which an electrician may consider a screwdriver one of his tools. The most common denominator between all the major incidents I have investigated involves risk assessment. There was no assessment, it was not suitable or sufficient, it was not available to those doing the work, was not understood by those carrying out the task or it was not followed.
In a world where as people we are continually assessing risk (for example before crossing a road, or driving our cars), why in the field of work, do we so often fail to assess risk? I would suggest that despite the huge amounts of money some companies spend on health and safety training, there are still a number of employees who feel that they need to get the job done, are doing the right thing by getting “stuck in”, in short, helping the company out. But in doing so they expose themselves and others to the risk of injury and their employers to breaches of health and safety regulations and possible enforcement action.
So how do we improve this situation? One option is that managers at all levels are visible, they get onto the shopfloor and talk to employees when they are carrying out their duties. By discussing the tasks employees are undertaking, managers are able to establish how risk assessments are playing a part in how the job is carried out and the control measures that have been adopted. This further allows managers to understand any shortcomings and highlight where improvements can be made.
Training can play a vital part, helping to ensure that all employees are able to, at the least, understand the risk assessments pertaining to the tasks they carry out. Better still, train all employees to be able to carry out risk assessments. Although a management duty, employees are often best placed to carry out assessments and should wherever possible be involved in the process. The real improvements will be made when employees feel empowered to challenge their colleagues, perhaps one of the most straightforward, but most difficult things to do at work.
Continually reinforcing the message that risk assessment is vital to improve health and safety, will in time lead to an employee taking a few minutes to assess the situation before starting a task, as being the norm. This in turn should lead to a reduction in harm, improved health and safety standards and increased profitability.
Kevin Barton Associates Ltd, health & safety support,