Every employer has a general duty under health and safety legislation to provide a safe workplace and to protect, in so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of its employees at work. This extends to a requirement to make a ‘suitable and sufficient’ assessment of the health and safety risks arising out of their workplace to identify what needs to be done to control those risks. For some risks, there are specific health and safety regulations which require particular control measures.

Such risk assessment and planning exercises should form a critical part of every employer’s health and safety compliance regime and will enable an organisation to ensure that it is managed safely, effectively and efficiently. It will also reduce the risk of prosecution for breach of health and safety by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and of being sued for personal injury.

Despite common misconceptions, risk assessments should not be about creating voluminous paperwork, or be complicated or unnecessarily time consuming. Rather, they are about identifying sensible and practical measures to control the risks in your workplace and to protect your employees and ultimately your business.

The recent prosecution of Skip-It Containers Ltd and its two directors by the HSE will make particularly stark reading for directors and managers who fail to take responsibility for and monitor health and safety in their workplaces.

The HSE prosecution followed an incident during which an employee was injured when his arm was caught in a conveyor belt, causing serious injury to his arm and hand. An investigation by the HSE found the company had failed to ensure the conveyor guards were maintained, used and fully functioning at all times.

The company was found guilty of breaching the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 and was fined £120,000. The individual directors, who had failed to monitor for health and safety or undertake any risk assessments, both pleaded guilty to breaching the same Regulations and were given 16-week custodial sentences, suspended for nine months, as well as significant personal fines.

Speaking after the case, the HSE was particularly critical of the company directors and said: “Through their inaction, the directors allowed health and safety standards, including machinery safety standards, to deteriorate to such a point that dangerous situations developed. This injury was easily prevented and the risk should have been identified”.

The HSE prosecution will serve as a timely reminder for all organisations and their directors, which the HSE can and will prosecute personally for health and safety breaches arising from poor oversight and management. For those organisations which have not undertaken a workplace risk assessment at all or for some time, a good starting point will be to walk around your workplace and identify any hazards. Think about how accidents and ill health could happen and concentrate on real risks – those that are most likely and which will cause the most harm.

A formal risk assessment should then be undertaken and, if you have at least five employees, documented in writing. The risk assessment should include your organisation:

  • identifying and evaluating the health and safety risks in the workplace and in other locations where employees, home workers or others may operate from or visit as directed by the business;
  • analysing what it is currently doing to control those risks, and
  • considering other possible measures to reduce, avoid or transfer those risks.