Risk Assessment Issues…

9th October 2015

Risk Assessment is lacking in every incident we investigate – why is the message not getting through? Risk assessment is primarily a thought process and not a work product! Whenever we set out to undertake an activity in business, a really simple, but important, question is:

Risk Assessment is lacking in every incident we investigate – why is the message not getting through?
Why are we doing it?The risk assessment thought process prompts a basic enquiry: How might people be hurt and are we doing enough to prevent unacceptable risks by implementing appropriate controls?

So how do we get off track, fail to complete assessments, fail to ensure that they are suitable and sufficient? Or simply fail to ensure that what we have worked out is required to ensure the health and safety of colleagues, is then implemented?

In the first instance, the role and reputation of risk assessment can pose a real challenge. Do the executive group, the management team and employees understand the answer to the “why” question? Can the executive group recognise the need to understand business risk across all disciplines at a high level and then drill down as necessary?

Presuming that some progress has been made with establishing the “why” of Risk Assessment , then it can be a big jump to understand the “how”. As a group, H&S professionals have not always helped in this specific area. I have a personal view that most risk assessment procedures in use are often far too complicated. Recognising that risk matrices are a useful tool, particularly in the highest risk environments and for prioritisation of actions, there is a danger that they can be utterly self-serving.

All colleagues need to have a clear understanding of the “why” and “how” questions and, by necessity, this pushes them to consider the “who” and “when” questions. Assessment of risk must be a living process and must flex and change with the work activity and the work environment. Workers engaged in a task need to understand their personal role in creating, challenging and living to the output of the assessment of risk. On many occasions, the “I have signed the RAMS so my role is complete” thinking prevails. Do your assessments of risk look like they are well used, have they made it of the folder or the computer? Would you encourage crossing out irrelevant information and handwriting in any new hazards, risk and controls?

Having been involved in reviewing many incident investigations with senior and line managers, it is notable that, times over, the business really had no facts as to what was really happening day-to-day versus what managers thought was happening. Line managers, responsible for the area where the incident occurred, were forced into the default position that everything in their area was perfect until the day they had a very real and significant incident. You don’t have to reflect for too long to work out that this just isn’t realistic. There would have been many indicators that the assessment of risk was not adequate or not acted upon.

In short, a crucial part of your control measures must be to have some basic checks assessing day to day performance. How would you answer if challenged on the completeness of the implementation of controls identified through your assessments of risk? Would the line manager be so confident on the day before the incident as when he was challenged post-incident?
Recording the output from risk assessments can seem bureaucratic and time consuming. Documents need to be accessible and usable, put yourself in the shoes of the person doing the task. Generic risk assessments can be a useful way of capturing the work experience of tasks completed safely, and with due consideration to worker health, BUT must always be reviewed to ensure that they relate to the activity on the day in question.

Finally, taking time to really understand the “suitable and sufficient” definition (used in the UK) is an incredibly important exercise. It gives you the quality assurance check that you need to be confident that your assessments of risk will genuinely contribute to keeping people safe and healthy.

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