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How to manage work health and safety risks

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Risk is the possibility that harm (death, injury or illness) might occur when people are exposed to a hazard. A hazard is a situation in the workplace that has the potential to harm the health and safety of people or to damage plant and equipment. The situation could involve a task, chemical or equipment used. Hazard management is a continuous process that is used to improve the health and safety of all workplaces.

Hazard management is essentially a problem-solving process aimed at defining problems (identifying hazards), gathering information about them (assessing the risks) and solving them (controlling the risks).

You should conduct a risk assessment to determine any hazards in your workplace and introduce measures to eliminate or minimise the risks.

Where a control has been used to address an identified hazard, this should be reviewed by checking the effectiveness of the control (evaluation). The whole hazard management process should also be reviewed after a period of time or when something changes.

Risk management

The risk management process involves four steps:

  1. Identify hazards – find out what could cause harm.
  2. Assess risks, if necessary – understand the nature of the harm that could be caused by the hazard, how serious the harm could be and the likelihood of it happening.
  3. Control risks – implement the most effective control measure that is reasonably practicable in the circumstances.
  4. Review control measures – ensure they are working as planned.

1. Identify hazards

Identifying hazards involves finding all of the things and situations that could potentially cause harm to people.

Hazards generally arise from these aspects of work:

  • physical work environment
  • equipment, materials and substances used at the workplace
  • work tasks and how they are performed
  • work design and management.

Examples of hazards include unsafe manual handling tasks, unsafe use of chemicals and the use of electrical plant in wet areas.

Methods you can use to identify hazards in your workplace include:

  • inspecting the workplace and observing how work tasks are performed
  • consulting your workers about any health and safety problems they have encountered in doing their work
  • analysing your records of workplace incidents, near misses and worker complaints
  • reviewing any information and advice about hazards and risks relevant to your particular industry or the type of work that you do (eg information provided by industry associations, manufacturers or suppliers).

Remember to think about long-term hazards, such as high noise levels or prolonged exposure to a harmful substance, as well as immediate safety hazards.

Refer to pages 7-8 of the PDF iconHow to manage work health and safety risks - Code of Practice for more information on how to identify hazards.

2. Assess risks

You should do a risk assessment when:

  • there is uncertainty about how a hazard may result in injury or illness
  • the work activity involves a number of different hazards and there is a lack of understanding about how the hazards may interact with each other to produce new or greater risks
  • changes at the workplace occur that may impact on the effectiveness of control measures.

A risk assessment is mandatory under the Work Health and Safety Regulations 2012 (SA) (the WHS Regulations) for high risk activities, such as entry into confined spaces, diving work and live electrical work.

Refer to the PDF iconHow to manage work health and safety risks - Code of Practice for more information on when you should undertake a risk assessment.

Assessing risks involves considering:

  • how severe the potential harm caused by the hazard could be, including:
    • what type of harm could occur (eg muscular strain, fatigue, burns, laceration)
    • whether the hazard could cause death, serious injury or illness, or only minor injury
    • how many people are exposed to the hazard
  • how hazards may cause harm, including:
    • the effectiveness of existing control measures and whether they control all types of harm
    • how work is actually done, rather than relying on written manuals and procedures
    • infrequent or abnormal situations, as well as how things are normally meant to occur
    • maintenance and cleaning processes, as well as breakdowns of equipment and failures of health and safety controls
  • the likelihood of harm occurring, including:
    • how often the task is done
    • how often people are near the hazard
    • whether it has happened before, either in your workplace or somewhere else, and how often.

The level of risk will increase as the likelihood of harm and its severity increases.

Refer to pages 9-12 of the PDF iconHow to manage work health and safety risks - Code of Practice for more information on how to assess risks.

3. Control risks

The ways of controlling risks are ranked from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest.

This is known as the hierarchy of risk control.

Where possible, implement the highest order risk controls.

Level 1:

Eliminate: Remove the hazard completely from the workplace (eg remove trip hazards on the floor or dispose of unwanted chemicals). This is the most effective control measure and must always be considered before anything else.

Level 2:

Substitute: Substitute or replace the hazard with a less hazardous work practice (eg replace solvent-based paints with water-based paints).

Isolate: As much as possible, separate the hazard or hazardous work practice from people by distance or using barriers (eg place guards around moving parts of machinery).

Engineering controls: These are physical control measures (eg use a trolley to lift heavy loads).

Level 3:

Administrative controls: These should only be considered when other higher order control measures are not practicable. These are work methods or procedures that are designed to minimise the exposure to a hazard (eg develop a procedure on how to operate machinery safely or use signs to warn people of a hazard).

Personal protective equipment (PPE): Ear muffs, hard hats, masks, gloves, protective eyewear and other forms of PPE should be a last option as they do nothing to change the hazard itself. Effectiveness also relies on the proper fit, use and maintenance of the equipment.

In some cases you may need to implement a combination of control measures to provide the highest level of protection that is reasonably practicable.

When selecting and implementing a combination of control measures it’s important that you consider whether any new risks might be introduced as a result.

Refer to pages 13-17 of the PDF iconHow to manage work health and safety risks - Code of Practice for more information on how to control risk, including the development, implementation and monitoring of controls.

4. Review control measures

Control measures you implement must be reviewed and, if necessary, revised to make sure they work as planned.

There are certain situations where you must review your control measures, including:

  • when a control measure is not effective in controlling the risk (eg when an incident occurs)
  • if a new hazard or risk is identified
  • before a change at the workplace that is likely to give rise to a new or different health and safety risk that the control measure may not effectively control
  • if the results of consultation indicate that a review is necessary
  • if a Health and Safety Representative requests a review.

You can review control measures using the same methods as the initial hazard identification step.

Refer to pages 18 of the PDF iconHow to manage work health and safety risks - Code of Practice and the case study on pages 22-27 for more information on how to review controls.

Keeping records

Keeping records of your risk management process can assist in demonstrating potential compliance with work health and safety legislation. It can also help you to monitor the health and safety performance of your business.

There are some specific record-keeping requirements in the WHS Regulations for some hazards, such as hazardous chemicals and asbestos. If such hazards are identified at your workplace, you must keep the relevant records for the time specified.

The detail and extent of recording will depend on the size of your workplace and the potential for major work health and safety issues.

Refer to pages 19 of the PDF iconHow to manage work health and safety risks - Code of Practice for more information on keeping records.