Assessment of risk in the workplace

Health and safety at work

Employers will often use “health and safety” as an excuse for not doing something which they didn’t want to do anyway, or to save money.  So called examples in the popular press of “health and safety gone mad” often turn out to be simply untrue or otherwise are down to the way that individual employers, or those responsible for health and safety in local schools or councils, interpret regulations.  Not all risk can be eliminated and not all accidents are compensatable.  However, as a general rule, no one should be exposed unreasonably to risk of injury while working for the benefit of others. The purpose of health and safety law is to protect people in their places of work. The law, generally, requires employers to act reasonably.  Risk assessments are a sensible starting point.  However, risk assessments are, ultimately, only bits of paper.  It is actual action taken to implement reasonable control measures identified by the risk assessment that is important.  An employer need only take steps to reduce a risk of injury “as low as reasonably practicable”.  If reasonable steps have already been taken to reduce risk, or if the risk in itself is minor because of existing controls, then nothing further need be done.  Failure to understand this principal when carrying out risk assessments may result in low risk activities being elevated to the same level of importance as high risk activities.  This diverts attention from important and sensible precautions, to the trivial and unnecessary, and gives ammunition to those who wish to re-classify health and safety from an absolute necessity, to an unnecessary inconvenience. 

The Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 aim to make more explicit what employers are required to do to manage day to day work effectively.  These Regulations require an employer to review and record what the risks in the workplace are and take sensible measures to tackle them, so far as is reasonably practical. An employer is only exempt from taking such practical measures, if the measures to avoid or reduce the risk are technically impossible or if the time, trouble or cost of the measures would be grossly disproportionate to the risk.  It is a question of balance, on the one hand the risk to a worker in terms of the likelihood of injury occurring plus potential consequences, against, on the other hand, the probable effectiveness of the precautions that can be taken, plus expense and inconvenience they will cause. 

Failure to undertake a reasonable risk assessment will not necessarily result in a finding of negligence against the employer.  It is still necessary to show that a risk assessment would have made a difference.