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March 3, 2015

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The power of risk assessment

Joe WolfsbergerBy Joseph Wolfsberger

All of us live in a world of limited resources. In the corporate environment health and safety initiatives are in competition with other endeavours that can improve quality, reduce costs and increase sales. How can health and safety compete with projects that add to the bottom line? I know that there is the age-old “God and Motherhood” argument or the “it’s the law” premise that has been used by many but the overuse of these have led management to be sceptical. Senior management expects health and safety professionals to provide the same type of risk-based arguments that their counterparts in other disciplines do. This is where risk assessments provide a powerful tool to prioritise hazards in an organisation.

Various forms of risk assessment can be employed at all levels of an organisation. Everything from job tasks to the effects of global warming on a company’s bottom line can benefit from a systematic review of hazards associated with a particular operation. It is important to note that the product of any tool used to conduct risk assessments is a prioritisation of the hazards not a determination of whether the operation is hazardous. There are risks associated with everything we do and while we are on a continuous “journey to risk elimination” they will be always with us. Our charter as health and safety professionals is to identify what presents the greatest risks and prioritise our resources to address them first.

The EU Council Directive 89/391 outlines the requirements for conducting risk assessments using an all-encompassing approach to evaluating hazards. In the US the approach to risk assessments is more fragmented with the requirement being outlined in individual standards such as personal protective equipment, chemical hazards, lockout/tagout and ergonomics. Although both methods are useful tools in protecting employees the holistic approach taken by the EU would seem to have the benefit of a single, comprehensive assessment of the risks.

Requirements for risk assessments are not only found in government regulations. ISO 14001 section 4.3.1 refers to conducting a review of significant aspects. This process is just another example of using a risk assessment method to prioritise hazards associated with an operation. Similarly OSHAS 18001 section 4.3.1 requires “The organisation shall establish, implement and maintain a procedure(s) for the ongoing hazard identification, risk assessment, and determination of necessary controls.”

The EU in its Directive 2001/95/EC (the General Product Safety Directive) also uses risk assessment to evaluate the safety of its products and has created the Community Rapid Information System (RAPEX) Risk Assessment Guidelines to facilitate the determination of hazards. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Standard 62061 also uses risk assessment to evaluate the safety of machines. These are just some examples of applications for risk assessment. They may all use different methods to perform the risk assessments but they all recognize the power in conducting them.

In a future blog I will go into more depth regarding the general aspects of the risk assessment process.

Joseph Wolfsberger is a senior advisor at FDRSafety where he provides consulting services related to environmental, health, safety and sustainability issues. He will be speaking at the IOSH conference in June.

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