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Risk assessments are the tip of the safety iceberg

Making staff aware of the dangers lurking in the workplace is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to safety– so it’s vital for employers to take a more active role and ensure health and safety rules are followed

When we first started hearing the term ‘risk assessment’ about 20 years ago, we tended to think it was some vastly complex process that would need very specialised expertise to deal with.

We pretty soon realised that this was not the case, and the publication of various standardised tools to crunch the assessment numbers made it even easier. Or did it?

I spend most of my time providing expert evidence in the Court of Session in respect of industrial accidents and the litigations that flow from them. This is a fascinating thing to be involved in, and I am forever amazed at how badly things can go wrong, despite the presence of sheaves of risk assessments.

On most of my cases, I spend a chunk of time analysing the risk assessments provided by the employers and usually conclude that they are not worth the paper they are printed on. Why is this? The first, and perhaps most common, failing is that the assessments were dutifully carried out by the employer’s health and safety team and then posted on the wall of their office for no-one but themselves to ever see or read. Worse still is where they are neatly filed away for future reference and only pulled out again at the due date for review. And then filed away again. Employees need to know The first and most important purpose of a risk assessment is to tell the employees carrying out a task what the risks are, and how they need to be controlled.

If the employees were shown a copy of a bunch of risk assessments during their induction process to the job, is that sufficient? Or if they are stuck to the wall of the manager’s office? Of course not! The assessments need to be issued to everyone involved in the task, either directly or indirectly, and they need to be kept up to date and referred to regularly when carrying out toolbox talks and other such forums.

If the employees are not totally aware of the contents of the assessments, how can an employer expect them to work in ways that avoid the risks identified in the assessments? When an electrical contractor takes on a new project, he will obviously pull together whatever correspondence, quotations, costing schedules, drawings and specifications will be needed by the site team to let them progress with the work. All relevant risk assessments should be a part of that package and copies should be provided to everyone who will be exposed to the risks identified. Using toolbox talks to go over the assessments and making sure that everyone is aware of the risks and mitigations is a crucial first step. If you want to ensure that somebody like me can’t criticise your attention to health and safety, make sure that every employee has been issued with a copy of the assessments, and any revisions, and make sure you keep records of that fact.

Follow the regulations The next step in proper management of risks is to make absolutely sure that you, as the employer, ensure compliance with all of the requirements of the assessment. This means not only to say that employees are to take care for their own safety, but for the management team to ensure that no employee is ignoring the safety mitigations. An employee just popping up a ladder to change a lamp, without anyone to foot the ladder because it was nearly lunchtime and nobody was available to help, is a classic failure of management.

While there may be an element of contributory negligence on the part of the employee, be in no doubt that the employer would be held liable for the consequences of an ensuing accident. In a recent case, I discovered that the operator of a piece of plant had not renewed his operator’s certificate for nearly two years. The case against the employers changed from being a case of one man’s word against another’s to a simple matter of liability placed entirely upon the employer because all of the risk assessments stated that only certified operators should be allowed to operate the plant.

This failing was created by indifference on the part of the operator and inattention on the part of the employer, but the employer pays out the compensation. By far the most common failing of risk assessments, however, is the reliance on generic assessments that simply do not cover the circumstances of the accident. In a perfect world, the assessments would cover every stroke of the saw blade and every hole to be drilled.

The realities of a construction site make this well-nigh impossible, but an employer has to do as much as he can to cover all of the obvious risks. Supply the right equipment One example I come across regularly, is the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) and particularly safety gloves. The EN388 standard defines an array of resistance criteria for various risks – such as cutting, abrasion, puncturing, etc – and the majority of risk assessments state that employees should wear “appropriate PPE”.

It is difficult to accept that an employee, other than a health and safety specialist, will be aware of the differences between the various types of gloves that are available. In another recent case, where an employee received a puncture injury, he had been issued with “better, thicker” gloves than previously, but these new gloves offered minimal protection against puncture injuries and did not comply with the mitigations defined in the employer’s risk assessment.

Another example I have often seen repeated, is the generic risk assessment issued to employees who are to go to a site and carry out a task, without anyone having actually been to the site to carry out a risk assessment.

When the employees arrive at the site, they find an access route strewn with rubbish including discarded needles. What should they do? Some employers state that the employee should make their own assessment and act in accordance with that, but this places a responsibility on the shoulders of an employee who is probably not qualified to take on that responsibility.

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