There is no doubt that we work with a wide range of hazards in the department.
Can we work safely with them? What is the risk posed by them?
Let's start off by getting these terms sorted out.
What do "hazard", "risk"
and "safe" actually mean?
Hazard is the potential to cause harm (that means anything that can
cause harm (e.g. toxic chemicals, radiation, pathogenic biological agents,
electricity, working from ladders, etc.)). The hazard is couched in terms
of "toxic", "carcinogenic", "pathogenic"
etc.. You can determine the hazard of a chemical from its data sheet or
the label on the bottle. For example, sodium cyanide is toxic.
Risk on the other hand is the likelihood of harm (in defined circumstances,
and usually qualified by some statement of the severity of the harm).
Straightforward risks can be expressed simply as "low" or "high",
more complicated ones may need to be expressed numerically as a combination
of severity of consequence and probability. A data sheet cannot tell you
the risk as that depends on how you use the hazard. For example, working
with 1ml of a buffered solution of sodium cyanide at pH 9 is "relatively
The relationship between hazard and risk must be treated very cautiously.
If all other factors are equal - especially the exposures and the people
subject to them, then the risk is proportional to the hazard. However
all other factors are very rarely equal.
If you are experienced (or well-informed, trained and/or supervised) in
handling something very hazardous then it is possible to work safely with
it. It is also possible to be harmed by something that is usually regarded
as "safe". In this context "safe" doesn't mean
As risk is dependent on the competency of the person performing
the work we have adopted a simple procedure for determining, and recording,
the supervision levels of individual workers. In departmental work areas
there is a yellow ring binder which contains paper copies of the risk
assessments. At the front of each one there is a Supervision Record to
record details of personnel carrying out the work outlined in each assessment.
These supervision records must be completed.
What is risk assessment? A risk assessment
is nothing more than a careful examination of what, in your work, could
cause harm to people, so that you can weigh up whether you have taken
enough precautions or should do more to prevent harm. The aim is to make
sure that no one gets hurt or becomes ill. The assessment must cover reasonably
foreseeable situations, and these include chemical spills, waste disposal
and emergency procedures.
Why does it need to be done? Accidents
and ill health can ruin lives, and affect your work too if fire causes
significant damage, machinery is out of action or you have to go to court.
As a university department we have a clear moral responsibility to protect
our members from harm caused as a result of working or studying here.
We must inform our members of the hazards and risks posed by their work
or studies. Departmental managers are legally required to assess the risks
in our workplace. The HSE has produced "A Guide to Risk Assessment
Requirements. Common provisions in health and safety law " at http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg218.pdf.
There are several sets of legislation where risk assessment is required,
the reason is to minimise injury to people. Our assessments attempt to
deal with all hazards of the work activities and so we tend not to refer
to them as "COSHH assessments" or "manual handling assessments"
(although we do have generic assessments covering these aspects) but rather
as work activity risk assessments..
Who must do it? "The employer"
must assess the risks of his work before it takes place. In our
situation that means supervisors (academic staff, postdoctoral
researchers, senior technical and administrative staff) need to do it.
We have a number of generic assessments drafted
to cover the majority of work performed in the department. Anyone can
draft a "special" assessment, indeed
it should be carried out by someone familiar with the protocol, but it
needs to be accepted by a supervisor before being checked and adopted
by the departmental safety coordinator and Head of department.
What needs to be done?
Adopt the generic assessments produced
within the department. Refer to the additional
infomation we have provided for lab workers.
For risks not covered by these then a special assessment may need
to be drafted. Before you do that please follow the scheme outlined in
our special assessments page.
The special assessment should follow the five steps in the HSE leaflet
("Five steps to risk assessment" - http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg163.pdf):
STEP 1: Look for the hazards.
STEP 2: Decide who might be harmed and how.
STEP 3: Evaluate the risks and decide whether the existing precautions
are adequate or whether more should be done.
STEP 4: Record the findings, make it available to all people performing
the work and assign individual supervision levels.
STEP 5: Review the assessment regularly and revise it if necessary (for
instance, in the light of an incident, new hazard data becoming available
or the change of a chemical exposure standard).
The important things to decide are;
whether a hazard is significant,
what are the reasonably foreseeable circumstances which should be
whether the risk of working with it is minimized by using appropriate
and available precautions and
whether the remaining risk is acceptable.
For instance, electricity can kill but the risk of it doing so in an
office environment is remote, provided that live components
are insulated and metal casings properly earthed.