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What is a risk assessment?

Updated on March 26, 2014

Risk Assessment?

"We need a risk assessment" has become one of the most frequently uttered phrases in industry and it's usually followed by a room full of people desperately avoiding eye contact in order to avoid being part of the risk assessment team, we've all seen it.

Once you understand the core principles of risk assessment you start to realise that these safety tools are not challenging to complete and that they should form part of any work activity or indeed business decision. Risk assessment performed correctly can save a company from serious discomfort and should be part of any good businessperson's toolkit.

This article will take you through the main steps involved in risk assessment and explain why they are important and their purpose as part of the overall risk assessment.


Risk assessments have a variety of formats and each company or employer will generally have their own or will use a common industry version. This results in risk assessments looking different from company to company which is part of why some people think they are confusing and are generally a process to avoid.

Regardless of how a risk looks it is important to understand that the final document will in every instance show how the persons conducting the risk assessment completed a few basic steps, these steps are common to every risk assessment system and are easily understandable.

If you are required to conduct a risk assessment but are given no format for doing so then I recommend that you firstly try to identify whether there is a common format which has been promoted by your government's safety administration or a common industry body. For example most energy or mining industry safety bodies will recommend a risk assessment format for use by their members.

Hazard Identification

Your first step in conducting a risk assessment is to identify all of the hazards associated with undertaking the activity or operation.

A hazard is something which has the potential to cause harm. It is important to recognise that a hazard is the thing which is causing the harm and not the effect of the harm. For example, flammable gas is a hazard whilst fire or explosion is the hazard effect. A hot tool would be a hazard whilst a burn would be the hazard effect.

In identifying hazards you need to consider the activity stage by stage and identify each of the hazards which could potentially cause harm, consider all scenarios which could reasonably be expected to occur. Some of these may be major hazards which could potentially cause serious accidents but others may be low level everyday hazards which could merely result in a slip or trip but all need to be listed.

To ensure that you identify all hazards you must be comprehensive. Using a team of people will provide you with a more comprehensive set of hazards. You should also consider checking the company's accident history involving that activity and also checking the internet for more information from the experience of others. Sometimes I have identified hazards associated with an activity which have been quite obscure causing rare but serious incidents only through internet research.

Hazard Assessment

The next stage of the risk assessment will be to systematically go through each hazard and identify what the hazard effect or severity would be. In doing this you are asking the question "If this hazard caused an incident then what would the outcome be?".

You should write down for each hazard what the expected outcome would be in terms or injury, fire, explosion, plant damage, product damage/loss, pollution or even disease.

Once you've conducted this step you need to identify how likely it is that the hazard will lead to an incident occurring. For example, is it likely that the incident will occur every time the activity is conducted or is it something that may only occur once in every few years?

The risk assessment method you are using will provide you with the basis for arriving at a risk value for each hazard. Normally this will mean converting the hazard effect/severity into a number and the probability/likelihood into a number and performing a calculation. Once we've done this we will have a risk value for each hazard. This risk value allows us to measure the importance of each hazard if left uncontrolled, we can now gauge how much we need to do to control each hazard and identify which hazards are the priorities.

Controlling the hazards

The next stage in the risk assessment is to identify what you are going to do to control the hazards, control measures are things you are going to put in place to make the activity safe by controlling each hazard.

You will need to systematically go through each hazard and identify what those control measures are.

When we are considering which control measures to use we should use a quick methodology each time as follows:-

1) Can we remove the hazard completely? If not then proceed to 2

2) Can we substitute the hazard with something less hazardous? (e.g. lower voltage equipment, less hazardous substances) If not then proceed to 3.

3) Can we guard the hazard so that the hazard cannot come into contact with people? If not then proceed to 4.

4) Can we give people equipment which prevents them having to come into contact with the hazard? If not proceed to 5.

5) Can we give the people personal protective equipment so that if the hazard comes into contact with them they'll have some protection.

Using this methodology we can identify the most suitable control measures for each hazard which will reduce the risk appropriately. Sometimes it is possible to use a combination of control measures to really nullify the risk.

When selecting control measures you need to make sure that you don't accidentally create new hazards to replace the ones which you are trying to control.

Identifying control measures means speaking to people who undertake the activity, checking out industry best practice, checking to see whether there are any statutory requirements and searching the net for information on what is available. If the hazard is particularly complex then you may need the help of a specialist to prescribe control measures.

Final assessment of risk

The final stage in any risk assessment is to conduct a final assessment of each hazard in the same manner as you did previously by identifying the probability of the hazard causing an incident and the severity of an incident but this time you need to consider the control measures you've agreed. These control measures will either have reduced the likely incident severity or probability and therefore will have reduced the risk value associated to the hazard. Now you can consider whether the risk has been reduced to an acceptable level, if it has then you are ready for your activity to proceed.

Sometimes it is necessary to recognise that your control measures have not reduced the risk far enough and that the risk from a hazard is still unacceptable so the activity cannot go ahead.


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