How To: Improving Risk Assessments

Risk Assessments

In 2010 the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) analyzed 20 years’ worth of accidents that resulted in fatalities and found that in every single instance there was a failure to appropriately assess the hazards present before performing work. Evidence from these investigations suggests that lives could have been saved and plant shutdowns avoided if employers contributed more focus to improving workplace hazard assessments. In many of the incidents, the hazardous conditions present that led to the fatalities were unanticipated and, therefore, uninvestigated. When risk assessments are limited to what scenarios could transpire under ideal conditions, it follows that many dangers could go unnoticed. For health and safety measures to become more dynamic, covering increasingly strained workplaces, risk assessments must improve.

What are Risk Assessments?

Risk assessments are an essential part of the workplace safety process. They help identify hazards, assess risk history and potential, and determine appropriate controls. Risk assessments help determine whether there are any risks associated with different activities or processes, how serious those risks are, and how likely they are to occur. Risk assessments are an important part of any safety management program, and therefore, need to be handled correctly.

The OSHA recommended process for Hazard Identification and Assessment was constructed to give employers a methodical approach to risk assessments. It begins with trained observers collecting information about workplace hazards as they exist (note: not what hazards would be present under normal or ideal circumstances). Such data collection is achieved by inspecting the workplace for safety-related hazards and categorically identifying them. If there are incidents that have previously occurred in the workplace, an incident investigation needs to be performed and the findings taken into consideration. OSHA further requires employers to identify hazards arising from nonroutine emergencies. Once all this information is collected, employers must categorize the identified hazards and utilize prioritization to assign interim control measures.

Most risk assessments are completed on a desktop, meaning that the observations and worksite conditions recorded are not being witnessed in real time. This could lead to missing out on identifying and controlling site-specific hazards, exposing employees to risk. Workplace inspections are the foundation of conducting a thorough risk assessment.

Field-Level Risk Assessment (FLRA)– Advantages and challenges.

OSHA recommends conducting an FLRA (a walk-around inspection). This means that the employee(s) responsible for inspections will visit all work locations and observe each task to identify hazards and control measures specific to that area. This provides a more detailed understanding of the performance of tasks, the identification of site-specific hazards, and the evaluation of existing controls. FLRA also helps track the implementation and effectiveness of prescribed control measures. Conducting FLRAs offers the advantages of them being easier (and generally shorter) to conduct than a full site or process-wide risk assessment and the information gathered from an FLRA can supplement the more detailed risk assessments whenever there are minor changes in working conditions. The challenges associated with conducting an FLRA, however, have to do with the potential loss of information and productivity when assessors must travel from the worksite to a desktop to record data.

When risk assessments are performed manually (via spreadsheets on paper copy or desktops), the cost of time and consistency makes the process very inefficient and is usually what leads to them being neglected. Manually entering information results in an increase in non-standardized data. For example, while assessing chemical hazard controls, one observer may identify that workers use nitrile gloves, while another may describe them as “safety gloves.” These differences in the level of detail are inherent to manual entry assessment and can lead to redundancies and other errors. Duplicated entries or omissions are also common in spreadsheet-based assessments due to the sheer volume of data when there are hundreds of hazards or controls present.

Additionally, when dated systems are used to perform risk assessments, it is purely up to the assessor to calculate the necessary schedule frequency and notify all the associated personnel. While the frequency of risk assessments can be determined using general guidelines based on the purpose of the assessment, there is no “one size fits all” answer and it is important to have outside assistance when scheduling. If there exists a long gap between updates, certain risks may change or become more prominent.

Embracing the latest improvements to risk assessments.

Innovations to EH&S Management Software have made the risk assessment process simpler, leading to more consistent OSHA compliance and safer workplaces. Contemporary risk assessment software modules can provide organizations with an easy-to-use risk matrix tool for completing fully configurable hazard and PPE assessments all within a centralized, cloud-based repository. Risk assessment software greatly expedites the hazard identification process and allows companies to create customized reports to meet their specific needs. Hazard assessments are standardized, as users select the observed hazard from a comprehensive list of hazardous substances before selecting the associated hazards. Risk assessment software can also help users prioritize risks based on the nature and complexity of the work processes.

To ensure that a risk assessment is effective and current, it should be reviewed at regular intervals. This enables employers to be confident that their safety policies are up-to-date and that employees are equipped with the right tools for their jobs. Scheduling recurring hazard and PPE assessments and adding on the assistance of automated reminder messages with secure links to pre-set assessment templates takes the administration out of assigning and scheduling assessments, while the ability to track corrective actions and other data from a central location simplifies the reviewal process.

While completing a risk assessment by using EH&S management software (especially one that is fully integrated and can communicate with modules that cover other safety processes), employers can be confident that every relevant detail will be captured. If an issue arises during an assessment, users can flag it to easily communicate it and ensure it gets addressed by the right individuals. Improving risk assessments is possible when successful methodologies (such as the inclusion of FLRAs) are paired with powerful technology that allows users to stay organized and deliver results on what matters most–keeping people safe.

Author Bio

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The SafetyStratus Research Advisory Group (RAG) brings together thought leaders from the global environmental, health, and safety community to promote best practices and provide key insights in the profession and the industries they serve. The Research Advisory Group also advocates, where practical, the intersection of and advances with the use of technology, such as the SafetyStratus enterprise EHS software platform. Group membership consists of representatives from across varied disciplines and market sectors as well as select members of the SafetyStratus team.
The primary objectives of the SafetyStratus RAG partnership are to:

  • Build a strategic partnership between EHS practitioners and the SafetyStratus team.
  • Provide engaging and practical content to the global EHS community.
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While the objectives of the RAG are varied, the primary public-facing outcome will be available through engaging and practical content found on the SafetyStratus resource pages. Various articles, papers, and other valuable resources will be produced and shared as part of an ongoing effort to cultivate a robust community. Ultimately, the SafetyStratus RAG will expand to have a broader reach and provide opportunities for more inclusion by all interested EHS professionals in a collaborative community environment.

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