Risk Assessment – the safe person or safe place dilemma


Controls, costs and counting beans

In a previous contribution on risk assessment I discussed the concept of ‘systematic’ and how it is a good idea to take everything into account, even though it may not be of great risk. The good thing about doing it that way, of course, is that it proves you have at least considered the hazard and its risk, even though it has turned out (at time of assessment) to be insignificant.

How many of you think a risk assessment is an exercise to kill trees, chew them up and mix with water, flatten them into paper, write on them and file them away to gather dust and never be seen again? Not many of you, I reckon, so what DO you actually do with them, then? 

In the best-case scenario, the risk associated with a particular hazard will be adequately controlled already, so there is little, if anything, you now need to do, bar record your findings, of course. And they will be what? Well, you say ‘no further precautions required’. And that’s that.

And although you tell yourself to “expect the best – but prepare for the worst”, what if you DO find your controls are not adequate?

Risk assessment image

This is where the ‘action plan’ bit comes in: you make a PLAN to do some ACTIONS.

Once you have decided you can’t accept a level of risk, you need to search your background, ancestry, training, knowledge (can’t remember what that’s called? Memory! That’s it!). Search your memory: have you seen this situation before? Have you made changes to situations like this before? You should be able to come up with something that will tackle the problem, something you can do to the engineering or management of this to make the level of risk more acceptable.

And in doing so, of course, you consider ‘reasonable practicability’ (back to your memory again) – something that those of us in the UK, at least, have on our side (not all countries do). It allows us to consider the level of risk in reality, look at the cost of putting it right (or at least reducing it) and comparing the two. We can then judge our planned action not just on whether it is practicable to do it but also on whether it is reasonable to spend this much on this level of risk reduction. If the cost outweighs the benefit, don’t do it; instead, do something else that achieves a similar reduction of risk  but doesn’t cost as much.

But exactly is ‘cost’? Or, to use another term, ‘resources’. Many different resources, and not just money, can be involved in risk reduction. People are resources – those who will make and fit this control measure, those who will maintain it afterwards, and those who will actually use it. Time is a resource: the time it takes to assess the risk, record it, look at the various options of controls, the time it takes the people mentioned earlier to do what they do. Materials are resources: bricks, mortar, steel, nuts and bolts, string and duct tape – whatever you’re used to using!

All of this resources stuff was summed up for me during a visit to a woodworking firm. They had this relatively new machine, which, when it worked wood, created dust. Luckily, their risk assessment showed that it created dust, where before there was probably less dust, so they wanted to do something about it.

Now, what should we consider here? Do we look at reducing the dust the machine creates? Do we look at the dust the machine process gives off? Do we look at the amount of dust the operators breathe while working it? Are we bothered about the dust anyone else breathes when they come in to the workshop? All of the above? None of the above? Or invent an answer of your own.

Are you there yet? In other words: how’s your action plan going?

I reckon we can break this down into two options: ‘safe place’ or ‘safe person’. (As a matter of interest, which is more reliable? You reckon people? Nah. . .) We can look to reduce or contain the dust at source, or we can forget that and look after the people, or get them to look after themselves by wearing dust masks. (See what I mean? That won’t work for long!)

Money comes into this equation, of course – for example, the cost of dust suppression and/or collection equipment on the wood-working machine versus the cost of dust masks for the people operating the machine. (Take your NEBOSH Certificate hat off for a bit and change into your accountant or financial manager headgear. . .)

Where were we? Resources! So, it’s not just the cost of dust-suppression or dust-collection equipment on the machine, is it? How about the cost of knowing when the dust collector is full? Who empties it? How much training do they need? When can they empty it – do they need to stop the machine? Where does the waste go? How much does that cost? (It’s OK – take your time with this, you’re an accountant now! No hurry. . .)

By now, you’ve probably decided that its cheaper to buy disposable dust masks for the operator. Let’s just re-visit our ‘resources’ though, shall we? How many operators are there? Do we need masks for everyone who comes into the workshop? Who will specify the right masks? Who will order them? How long do they take to get here? When they do get here, who will take delivery of them? Where do they go? How long will each mask last, so how many do we need to buy at one time? Where do we store them all? How do we get one when we need one?

I’ve had enough of this accountancy lark! And I haven’t even considered the noise associated with this woodworking machine yet!!

So, how’s the action plan going?


Roger Passey

Roger Passey

Roger Passey Dip2OSH MIOSH (retired)

Occupational health and safety consultant

Roger has been working in health and safety since 1988 and as a consultant since 2004. Formerly a chartered IOSH member, he now enjoys retired status.

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