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The limits of paper risk assessments

Safety is not about form filling but culture change, says Jim Gray

These days everything seems to involve a risk assessment. So much so that even the former chair of the Health and Safety Commission said we need to keep safety in perspective.

There were 77 fatalities and 3,700 serious injuries in the construction sector in 2006/07. It’s serious business for those who take chances and it’s disastrous for the losers.

Companies are usually good at doing formal risk assessments and most follow the steps recommended by the Health and Safety Executive: We examine what could cause harm to our workers, we assess what precautions should be taken, implement our findings and review the assessments.

So why does it go wrong? The answer is it comes down to people and human error.

I have recent personal experience of a worker who suffered a serious injury when loading equipment. The injured worker was very experienced and was supervising the operations. However, while an extensive risk assessment had been done it still didn’t prevent the injury.

I asked a supervisor on a recent safety audit: “How do you make use of your risk assessments?” He shrugged off my question and said he keeps them in a box somewhere.

He runs a high performing safety-conscious team that starts every work session with a 10 minute safety discussion. In addition, they have simple ‘stop and think’ cards and processes. They’ve been trained in safety risks and they have a monthly toolbox safety discussion.

They have identified what their own risks are and what they need to do to manage them. They don’t rely on pieces of paper in a box or waiting for the safety guy to audit them.

That’s the kind of risk assessment we need. Sure, the paperwork is still required, but it’s the workers doing the job that need to do the real risk assessment, not the safety guys ticking off another job on the to-do list. Assessment and control of risk need to lie with those at risk.

Risk assessment is close to my heart right now. I’m involved with two operations and I am trying to reconcile two different risk assessment methodologies. Maybe it comes down to two situations:

The first is where we have ‘static’ situations like workshops or routine operations, where we can boil the risk assessment paperwork down to the simplest possible approach. Perhaps this is with simple rules about personal protective equipment and other precautions.

The second is where there are specific tasks which require an extra level of precaution. This is where we need to go to town on the assessment.

Whatever the approach and whatever technique is used, ultimately it’s the people that make the difference. Only by instilling a culture of best practice health and safety throughout an organisation will we see the best results.

But there will still be some individuals who just don’t get it and who can’t find their own way to comply with simple rules. We should look to enforce compliance, or in the extreme, maybe we should look for other ways to remove these risks from our operations?

Jim Gray is head of safety, health, environment and quality at Finning Group (UK)