A risk assessment is a series or set of processes used to identify potential health and safety hazards, analyze and evaluate the associated risks, and determine appropriate ways to eliminate or control those risks. It involves taking a close look not only at the equipment in the workplace, but also the situations, processes, and other factors that may cause or contribute to harm.

OSHA notes that one of the root causes of many workplace injuries, illnesses, and incidents is the “failure to identify or recognize hazards that are present or could have been anticipated, [and] a critical element of any effective safety and health program is a proactive, ongoing process to identify and assess such hazards.”

In light of this, we’re going to look at why risk assessments are an essential component of workplace safety and review the key steps to conducting a thorough risk assessment.

Why Risk Assessments Are Essential

Put simply, risk assessments substantially reduce the chances that an accident or illness will occur at work, since they help safety leaders and supervisors identify and either eliminate or control hazards before they can cause harm to workers.

More specifically, risk assessments help:

  • Create greater awareness about hazards and risks
  • Identify who may be at risk in a given workplace
  • Determine whether controls are required for a hazard, and whether any existing controls are adequate
  • Make hazards and control measures a priority
  • Meet legal requirements for creating a safe workplace

The aim of a risk assessment is to answer a handful of critical questions, including:

  • What can happen, and under what circumstances?
  • What are the potential consequences?
  • How likely is it that these consequences will occur?
  • Is the risk effectively controlled, or do we need to take further action?

It’s important to conduct risk assessments regularly, as hazards and risks can change over time. The most common times to complete them are before introducing new processes, before changing existing processes (e.g. when new machinery becomes available), and when a hazard has been identified.

(See The Proper Way to Conduct a Safety Audit for related reading.)

5 Steps for Conducting a Thorough Risk Assessment

Risk assessments are generally broken down into five steps. Each of these plays an important role in the overall outcome.

1. Identify the Hazards

Your workplace should already have lots of information about its potential hazards. Your goal in this step is to collect, organize, and review that information. Good places to start looking for it include:

  • Operating manuals for machines and other equipment
  • Safety Data Sheets for chemicals
  • Inspection reports, both internal and from consultants or government agencies
  • Logs of previous accidents, injuries, and illnesses
  • Existing safety programs (such as lockout/tagout, confined space, and PPE)
  • Exposure monitoring results
  • Worker input, such as from employee surveys
  • Safety and Health Committee meeting minutes

If you need to conduct an inspection, you’ll want to look at operations, equipment, work areas, and facilities. It’s also important to talk to workers about the hazards they see.

(Find out How to Perform a Lone Worker Risk Assessment.)

Checklists are key to this process, and should include the major categories applicable to your workplace. Examples of these include, but are not limited to:

  • Slips, trips, and falls
  • General housekeeping
  • Electrical hazards
  • Equipment operation
  • Ergonomic issues
  • Workplace violence
  • Lack of emergency procedures
  • Chemical and biological hazards

2. Determine Who Might Be at Risk (and How)

Full-time and part-time staff are the ones most obviously at risk, but there are other people you need to consider. These include contract and temporary staff, visitors, clients, and members of the public.

As for the "how," you'll want to consider both normal operational issues as well as non-standard events like power outages, emergencies, extreme weather, and maintenance. Looking at near-miss data can be especially valuable for determining how the risks play out.

(Learn more about Near Misses: What They Are and Why You Should Report Them.)

Here are some examples:

  • Supermarkets: repetitive tasks at the cash register, lifting loads in the stock room, slips and trips on the supermarket floor or in the warehouse area, violence from customers or intruders
  • Warehouses: repetitive movements, lifting and carrying loads, slips/trips/falls, equipment handling, loading dock hazards
  • Landscaping: tool handling, equipment operation, heat and sun exposure, chemical exposure, hand and eye injuries

3. Assess the Likelihood and Severity of the Risks

During this step, you’ll consider how likely it is that each hazard could cause harm to someone. A variety of factors contribute to the level of risk, including:

  • Work environment (layout, condition, etc.)
  • Work systems being used
  • How the hazard could cause harm (ingestion, inhalation, contact, etc.)
  • How often and for how long an individual may be exposed
  • The interaction, skill, and experience of workers carrying out the work

One way to rank the risks is using a risk matrix that shows the relationship between probability and severity.

Risk MatrixSource: CCOHS

In a matrix like this, you would use classifications for each category.

Severity:

  • High severity: major fracture, poisoning, significant blood loss, fatal disease
  • Medium severity: sprain or strain, dermatitis, injury requiring days off work
  • Low severity: injury requiring only first aid, short-term pain or irritation

Probability:

  • High likelihood: likely to be experienced one to two times per year by an individual
  • Medium likelihood: might be experienced once every five years
  • Low likelihood: might occur once in an individual's’ entire working life

Of course, high likelihood, high severity items require immediate attention, while the lowest risk items simply require monitoring.

4. Identify Actions to Eliminate or Control the Risks

Action must be taken for medium and high risks, as well as those that pose an immediate danger.

The type of action will depend on the circumstances – the nature of the risk, who is affected, and so on – and may include:

  • Elimination (removing the hazard)
  • Substitution (replacing the hazard with a safer alternative)
  • Engineering controls, such as ventilation, isolating emissions, or automating work processes
  • Administrative controls, such as restricting access to a work area or using a work-rest schedule to limit exposure
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, face masks, aprons, respirators, and hard hats

5. Conduct an Evaluation

It’s best practice to evaluate your risk assessment to ensure it was accurate and complete, and to ensure the control methods put in place are effective.

You will also want to keep records of the assessment, though the length of time you need to maintain these records for depends on the legislation in your area. In general, the records should demonstrate that you conducted a thorough hazard review, determined the associated risks, implemented suitable control measures, and reviewed and monitored all workplace hazards.

Remember to evaluate your assessment on a regular basis, since the introduction of new equipment, processes, or work demands can impact its effectiveness.