Amongst the many impacts of Covid-19 is this: everyone is talking about risk assessment

Those of us working in the occupational safety & health profession have been talking about risk assessment since its formal inception in 1992; but for some it can be a difficult concept to grasp and to apply. I remember struggling with the same concepts when faced with an extensive project for a large retailer early in my career.

Risk assessments completed with the right foresight and practical application enable organisations to take mixed messages, differences in opinion and large amounts of guidance or data and refine this into the best way for them to work or undertake tasks.

Financial risk assessment is clearly understood. Similarly, leadership teams will develop a risk register using these concepts to enable strategic decisions to be made based on the risk appetite for the organisation.

Yet, when we ask teams to look at tasks, environments and people the concept is so often left in the ‘too difficult to do’ pile. Everyone seems to need a template or list of rules first.

A risk assessment is not a checklist which lists current controls and leaves it there. It is also not an inspection. A risk assessment is a systematic review of a situation – unpicking current processes and what the potential issues (hazards) could be. Once identified, determine if the risk level is acceptable or not. If the risk is not acceptable, determine what can be done to reduce the risk.

Out of the current crisis, I have seen senior management want to learn more about managing risks and it has had a positive effect, not just on managing the risks from Covid-19 but across health and across safety in general.

The stages of risk assessing and top tips

1. Identify hazards
Covid-19 is a hazard. There are many other hazards in the workplace, from the use of work equipment, chemicals and other hazards around buildings, to hazards created from the way an organisation is organised – its culture. Working from home is no longer the temporary measure we thought it might be and hazards here will relate to the potential for musculoskeletal disorders due to an inappropriate workstation or perhaps to feelings of anxiety due to an isolated way of working.

Some hazards will not require further assessment because they are clearly low risk; others may be grouped together; and some could be person-specific. Hazards remaining will require a risk assessment. Creating a ‘mind map’ to plan this out and avoid overlap is a good place to start.

2. Decide who might be harmed and how
Different people are affected by different hazards in different ways. If a hazard could affect large numbers of people then how it is managed will need different considerations. People with existing conditions may also need to be considered.

The ‘how’ is important. In OSH, the reality is there are a finite number of hazards and to determine the ‘how’ will involve looking at how you currently work, undertake a task or manage. This is where guides can be useful, but always apply it to your situation.

3. Evaluate risk and decide on controls
Current controls may be enough. It can be useful to consider how likely a hazard is to come to fruition against the consequence of doing nothing. You could as easily decide whether the hazard is high, medium or low. Covid-19 has a potentially fatal outcome so the consequence will be high and therefore what is needed to be put in place will be greater.

In determining controls, the hierarchy of risk control must be applied. This shows the most effective control is to eliminate the risk at source where possible. The provision of PPE may appear a cheaper option, but control must be from the source first. The provision of PPE should be considered when other options do not sufficiently reduce the risk. Work with teams to come up with new ways of working – those involved may well have the answers.

An organisation with staff working from home should plan their approach to workstation assessment. It is important for controls to include clear communication so staff know the correct positioning whilst working, but are not afraid to improvise a little – for example, using books to raise a screen. There are some clever low-cost solutions on the market, such as setting up a laptop with a separate keyboard. Whilst working at home it is more challenging to set home/work boundaries, so regular breaks from the screen are critical.

Mental health should be part of any current risk assessment, and for home-workers many will feel isolated especially if they live alone. It is also much harder to know how well you are performing when separated from line management structures.

4. Record your findings
In writing down your risk assessment other issues are often flagged. It may be possible to see where lowering the risk in one place creates a new risk someplace else.

In some cases, risks from home-working can be reduced by staff returning to work in the office now that restrictions have started to be lifted. This may be important for those working within inappropriate conditions at home. For example, younger staff members may not have the space they need to work well and in comfort. Many staff need greater interaction to work well, and each issue should be considered.

The record of your risk assessment will show your methodology, thought processes and how you have come to decisions about what’s next. Findings must be shared with those it affects, but this could be in a summary or easy to digest communication rather than the full risk assessment.

5. Review & update the assessment
Risk assessments should be dated and signed. As the assessment is completed it will probably be clear when a review is required. If guidance or situations change the assessment will need to be considered again. Right now, most assessments need frequent review.

Organisations that take true ownership of risk assessment as a process to plan their approach will save time in the future. The current situation has revealed that in many organisations the risk assessment has previously been left to the safety manager or a few individuals. It has been seen as time-consuming and bureaucratic. But the Covid-19 crisis has shown us that all levels within an organisation must fully embrace the risk assessment approach and feel more comfortable with risk management. Faced with conflicting information and differences in opinion the humble risk assessment really can cut through the noise.

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