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Health and Safety Services

Guidance on Risk Assessment

The assessment of all work for significant risk is a legal requirement and is the main building block of a health and safety system.  All of Birkbecks safety policies and codes of practice, e.g. for liquid nitrogen handling or driving minibuses, result from a consideration of an activity and a subsequent decision that there is a level of risk associated with that activity that requires the control measures to be implemented that are set out in the generic policy, guide or code of practice document covering that activity.  Where a more detailed risk assessment of a particular activity is required, risk assessment forms are used.   Blank risk assessment forms - general and specific ones - can be found here.    Risk assessments and codes-of practice etc need to be kept up-to-date and everyone who undertakes the activity concerned must be issued with them in some format and must follow them.  They also have to be periodically monitored by managers to make sure that they do follow them.  The topic is now addressed in more detail below.

What does a Risk Assessment involve?
The Management of Health and Safety Regulations require employers to carry out suitable and sufficient risk assessments of their activities. You would not cross the road (very often) without looking at the traffic conditions and judging about your chances of being run over - that is a risk assessment.  A risk assessment in the school/department involves the following considerations:

(a) What activities does the school/department engage in? 
You can work this out using our activities survey form.  Click here.

(b) What hazards are associated with the activities?
A hazard is the potential to cause harm. e.g. knives and other sharp equipment in kitchens can cut and injure.

(c) What is the likelihood (i.e. the risk) of that hazard materialising?
This involves a consideration of how much, how often, for how long, who is involved, how well have they been trained, educated, informed, supervised, what engineering controls are already present e.g. (and keeping with the cuts in the kitchen scenario) - guards on bacon slicers, what maintenance regime is in place and as a last resort what personal protective equipment (PPE) is necessary e.g mailed gloves for staff chopping meat?

(d) Calculating the risk
This involves assigning a numerical value to both the possible severity of hazard and the liklihood of the severity occurring bearing in mind the existing controls.  How to do this (it's easy) is set out at the bottom of the general risk assessment form.  See here.

(d) Are more controls needed?
If the calculated risk level is HIGH further controls will definately be necessary before the activity can commence.  In many cases this will apply to MEDIUM risks as well.  Consider what those necessary additional controls e.g. more safety guarding, information, training etc, inplement them and monitor their usage.

(e) Inform everyone necessary and keep up to date
Make sure that all who need to know the necessary controls identified are informed about them. The risk assessment should be reviewed annually or earlier if a material change takes place such as new staff or equipment, new amounts used etc. Again, a range of risk assessment forms with full guidance is available at:

More paperwork! Does the risk assessment have to be a written document?
Not if it can be easily understood and repeated - e.g. when crossing the road, look right, left and right again then cross if clear'. If the controls are any more complex then, yes, they should be written down. However, a generic risk assessment covering similar types of work is perfectly acceptable and new risk assessments are not necessary if the safety procedure to be followed is already documented in an existing area code of practice or policy - these are of course the results of earlier risk assessments!

Who carries out the risk assessments?
Risk assessments should be carried out by a competent person - ideally the senior person responsible for the activity with the assistance of those involved. e.g. for a scientific procedure, the project supervisor would carry out the assessment, ensure all concerned have seen and understood it and keep it close to hand within the place of work in order that it can be referred to as necessary. The safety co-ordinator of the school or department checks that the risk assessments have been done.

Where does one obtain the finer detail on a particular safety issue that one might need to help make a correct assessment and draw up an effective set of controls?
The person making the risk assessment is likely to be the expert in that particular field and already know what will be necessary or where to find the answers. However, Birkbeck Health and Safety Services has access to a wide range of safety information - try there. Health and Safety at Birkbeck is also  in touch with all other safety offices in UK universities by e-mail. Answers can often be very quickly found from the experiences of others elsewhere.

I am not head of a school or department but I am a manager. What are my safety responsibilities?
You will identify and carry out any necessary risk assessments for your work and check that the staff you are responsible for have carried out theirs if applicable. You will then monitor that relevant safety procedures are adhered to within your section. You will also disseminate any relevant safety information to your staff and arrange for them to receive safety training where codes of practice or risk assessments dictate this is necessary.

In the event of an accident, will I be held personally liable if I got the risk assessment wrong?
There seems to be an unreasonable level of dread about personal liabilities - especially in relation to getting a risk assessment 'wrong'. The following points should provide reassurance:
i) Risk Assessment should be a group exercise involving those at risk - the more people consulted the fewer hazards that will be missed.
ii) Report upwards if worried
iii) Seek advice if it's a technical matter
iv) One cannot be held responsible for an event that was not "reasonably foreseeable".
v) Act within your training/instructions and you should be OK.
vi) Prosecutions are rare for individuals. Staff act as an instrument of their employer and the concept of vicarious liability applies. With regard to a criminal prosecution, should there be shortcomings, staff are highly unlikely to be individually prosecuted, since their defence might be that they had not been adequately trained by their employer. With regard to a civil action, the same holds true with the addition that where monetary recompense is being sought, individuals have far less money than their employer, who will therefore be the more likely target.

Could I avoid any personal liability by not signing risk assessments?
i) Any individual prosecution is more likely to result from doing/not doing/being in charge of something that, on the facts, was obviously daft or irresponsible.
ii) However, while the piece of signed paper can't make the facts any worse, it just might get one off the hook by demonstrating that effort had been put into trying to get it right. Whereas, if the facts look bad, not having that signed bit of paper will probably ensure a conviction.
iii) Ensure written risk assessments are issued to those involved. In 1995, a lecturer was prosecuted because his risk assessment was only verbally delivered to a student who was subsequently involved in an accident and later swore that the instruction was not given - since of course he didn't want to look silly for not doing as he had been told..

Training in risk assessment is available from Health and Safety Services.

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Health & Safety Services, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX. Tel: 020 7631 6218, email: