managing work health and safety risks

Although legislation has improved workplace health and safety, there are still risks that can result in fatality or serious injury. Effective risk management starts with a commitment to health and safety from those who operate and manage the business or undertaking. The involvement and cooperation of workers is essential, and along with proactive support from management, workplace risks can be minimised.

With 42% of fatal injuries caused by vehicle incidents and 14% of fatal injuries caused by falls from heights, statistics show that hazards can come in different forms.  While it may seem obvious that there are more risks associated with machinery operators and labourers, in 2016 more workers in the administrative and support industry were fatally injured than in the manufacturing industry (Safe Work Australia, 2017).  This shows how important workplace health and safety is in every industry. 

risk assessment: a step-by-step process

A safe and healthy workplace does not happen by chance or guesswork. It is vital to think about what could go wrong at your workplace and what the consequences could be. This is where a risk assessment comes in.

Risk assessments are vital in protecting workers and visitors to businesses. They help employers focus on risks with the potential to cause harm in the workplace. In many instances, straightforward measures can readily control risks: e.g. clearing up spills to prevent slipping or removing trip hazards. It can mean simple, cheap and effective measures to ensure employees are protected.

The law only requires employers to protect employees as far as is ‘reasonably practicable’, but the law does require assessment of risks in the workplace to enable plans to be put in place to control those risks.

the risk assessment process involves the following five steps:

  1. identify hazards
  2. decide who might be harmed and how
  3. evaluate risks and decide on precautions
  4. record your findings and implement them
  5. review assessments and update if necessary.

risk assessment process


hierarchy of actions to prevent risks

  1. avoid the risk by eliminating it – avoiding the task completely, if possible - or carrying out
  2. the task safely or using safer materials
  3. evaluate risks that cannot be avoided (see risk assessment process)
  4. combat risks at source – solve the problem rather than putting up a warning sign
  5. try to fit the task to the person, not the person to the task; avoid boring tasks; let the
  6. people, not the process set the pace
  7. use technology and innovation to improve safety
  8. create a coherent policy, addressing serious risks first
  9. protect the whole workforce not individuals
  10. ensure everyone knows what they must do to stay safe.

reviewing control measures

The control measures you put in place should be reviewed regularly to make sure they work as planned. There are certain situations where you must review your control measures under the WHS Regulations, and if necessary revise them. A review is required: 

  • when the control measure is not effective in controlling the risk
  • before a change at the workplace that’s likely to give rise to a new or different health and
  • safety risk that the control measure may not effectively control
  • if a new hazard or risk is identified
  • if the results of consultation indicate a review is necessary 
  • if a health and safety representative requests a review.

You may use the same methods as in the initial hazard identification step to check controls. Consult your workers and their health and safety representatives, and consider the following questions:

  • are the control measures working effectively in both their design and operation?
  • have the control measures introduced new problems?
  • have all hazards been identified?
  • have new work methods, new equipment or chemicals made the job safer?
  • are safety procedures being followed?
  • has instruction and training provided to workers on how to work safely been successful?
  • are workers actively involved in identifying hazards and possible control measures? Are
  • they openly raising health and safety concerns and reporting problems promptly?
  • is the frequency and severity of health and safety incidents reducing over time?
  • if new legislation or new information becomes available, does it indicate current controls may no longer be the most effective?

If problems are found, go back through the risk management steps, review your information and make further decisions about risk control. Priority for review should be based on the seriousness of the risk. Control measures for serious risks should be reviewed more frequently. Case studies demonstrating how to manage work health and safety risks in consultation with workers are available from Safe Work Australia

potential hazards 

  • hazard: manual tasks
  • potential harm: overexertion or repetitive movement can cause muscular strain
  • hazard: falls and falling objects
  • potential harm: falling objects and people’s falls, slips and trips can cause fractures, bruises, lacerations, dislocations, concussion, permanent injuries or death
  • hazard: electricity
  • potential harm: potential ignition source; exposure to live electrical wires can cause shock, burns or death from electrocution
  • hazard: machinery and equipment
  • potential harm: being hit by moving vehicles or being caught by moving parts of machinery can cause fractures, bruises, lacerations, dislocations, permanent injuries or death
  • hazard: hazardous chemicals
  • potential harm: chemicals (such as acids, hydrocarbons, heavy metals) and substances (such as dust, asbestos, and silica) can cause respiratory illnesses, cancers or dermatitis
  • hazard: extreme temperatures
  • potential harm: heat can cause burns, heat stroke or fatigue; cold can cause hypothermia or frostbite 
  • hazard: noise
  • potential harm: exposure to loud noise can cause hearing damage
  • hazard: radiation
  • potential harm: ultraviolet, welding arc flashes, micro waves, and lasers can cause burns, cancer or blindness
  • hazard: biological
  • potential harm: micro-organisms can cause hepatitis, legionnaires’ disease, Q fever, HIV/AIDS or allergies
  • hazard: psycho-social
  • potential harm: effects of work-related stress, bullying, violence, and work-related fatigue. 

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