Managing health and safety risks in a workplace is one of the most crucial elements of a business. Yes, there are obvious financial and operational downsides associated with a breach of Work Health and Safety (WHS), but most importantly, without proper risk management, people’s wellbeing can be jeopardised. Risk management is so important that it has its own approved Code of Practice under the Work Health and Safety Act (the WHS Act), so it’s safe to say (pun intended), that it’s well worth taking the time to understand the issues and considerations that surround it.
So, what is considered a WHS risk?
According to Safe Work Australia, a risk is defined as ‘the possibility that harm (death, injury or illness) might occur when exposed to a hazard’. They define a hazard as ‘a situation or thing that has the potential to harm a person’. Basically, if there is a chance a worker might be put in a situation where they could get hurt or sick as a result of something in the workplace, it could be considered a WHS risk.
Who is responsible for identifying and managing risks?
It is no one person’s responsibility to entirely manage health and safety risks in a workplace. The people responsible are known as duty holders and they can include Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU), which is basically the person or people in charge of an organisation, as well as designers, manufacturers, importers, suppliers and installers of plant, substances or structures. Another potential duty holder is an officer, who is normally someone within a business who has significant decision-making or financial power. They are required to perform WHS due diligence in a workplace. It’s important to understand that a person within an organisation can have more than one duty, and more than one person can be responsible for the same duty at the same time. However, it isn’t just official duty holders who are responsible for risk management under the WHS Act. In fact, all workers, volunteers or visitors to an organisation have a duty to take a reasonable amount of care for their own personal health and safety at work.
How can you identify a risk?
As a duty holder, the most effective way to identify a risk is to actually spend time in the workplace observing how things are done and analysing what could possibly go wrong in a worst-case scenario. As examples, this could involve checking out the equipment that is being used or the way people are performing certain tasks. Unfortunately, hazards are not always obvious – something innocuous like someone performing a small, repetitive motion could over time become a risk to their physical health but might look completely harmless at first glance. Taking your time and documenting all the potential hazards and the associated risks for follow up is a great first step. Aside from observation, it’s also important to consult with workers and anyone else in your supply chain. Depending on the size of your business, this could be done in many ways, from casual conversations with staff, through to a company-wide survey about staff experiences. Finally, reaching out to suppliers or manufacturers for safety documents or other information sheets can be invaluable, so don’t forget to get your hands on them and read them carefully.
Once you know what the potential risks are, how should they be assessed?
Much like the risk identification process, a risk assessment can range from a large and formal process or a more casual conversation, which will be determined largely by the size and complexity of the risk itself. A simple discussion with workers or a slight improvement in a process may suffice, but at other times a PCBU may need to engage a specialist to make an appraisal of a more complicated risk and provide some recommended solutions. When assessing a risk, the four main questions to consider are:
- How severe is the risk?
- Are there any existing control measures that are effective?
- What action should you take to control the risk?
- How urgently does the action need to be taken?
For full details of how to carry out a risk assessment, you should refer to Safe Work Australia’s code of practice: How to manage work health and safety risks.
How can you eliminate risks?
Once a risk has been assessed, it then needs to be minimised or eliminated, which is known as risk control. Safe Work Australia defines risk control as ‘taking action to eliminate health and safety risks so far as is reasonably practicable, and if that is not possible, minimising the risks so far as is reasonably practicable.’ Risk control is, without a doubt, the most important part of the risk management process and there are several ways it can be done. As previously covered, a risk is normally caused by exposure to a hazard, so the logical solution is to remove or minimise that hazard, which will remove the risk. Three main control measures can effectively reduce risk. They are:
- Substituting the hazard for something safer. As an example, this could mean swapping out a toxic paint for a non-toxic paint.
- Isolating people from the hazard. This could involve setting up a safety barrier to prevent people from going near the hazard.
- Removing the hazard using engineering controls. This means using something physical like an electrical safety switch to control the hazard.
But, if this isn’t enough, administrative controls, including further training and an overhaul of work practices and processes, may be required. Ultimately, the goal with risk management is to ensure your business is legally protected under the WHS Act and your people can go home at the end of the work day feeling both physically and mentally cared for. Being familiar with the Code of Practice and the Act itself will stand you in good stead to work in and operate an extremely low-risk work environment.
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Disclaimer – these articles are provided to supply general safety information to people responsible for OHS in their organisation. They are general in nature and do not substitute for legal and/or professional advice. We always suggest that organisations obtain information specific to their needs. Additional information can be found at https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/