Laboratory Safety
December 2012
RISK ASSESSMENT – A Proactive Effort for Ensuring Safety

The requirement for risk assessment was one of the issues covered in the Unit Heads and DSOs Meeting held earlier this year. While some departments have already established such a program, others have yet to formalize their effort.

Risk assessment is in fact a very important effort in safety management. While it is important for people to follow safety rules and procedures, it is necessary for them to know exactly what they should follow and understand why they should follow certain safety rules and procedures. Risk assessment is therefore needed to find out the specific safety problems involved in particular work activities/processes so that appropriate and specific safety measures can be determined and implemented. With this purpose in mind, risk assessment can be conducted in many different ways and with different degree of sophistication, depending on the need and types of work activities and operations. In this article, we are going to outline some basic principles and brief guidelines of risk assessment that can be applied to most work activities at HKUST.

Applications of Risk Assessment

There are two major applications (or focuses) of risk assessment, namely "Workplace Risk Assessment" and "Work Process Risk Assessment".

In workplace risk assessments, we mainly look at the potential safety risks that exist   in a particular workplace. Such risks can be created by the machines and equipment, materials and substances, installations, etc., being used and stored in a workplace. The risks can also include those created by the condition and layout of the workplace such as the access and egress, fire escape provision, housekeeping, lighting, ventilation, etc.

The hazards and risks identified in a workplace risk assessment are specific to a particular workplace. However, in a particular workplace, there may be work processes conducted at different times. Such work processes may create additional safety risk of their own when they are being conducted. Therefore, we also need to conduct risk assessments for specific work processes independent of the workplace risk assessment.

Basic Steps in Risk Assessment
1. Hazards Identification

"Hazard" is a more technical term for "danger", which can be defined as "the potential for harm or damage to people, property, or the environment". Such "potential" can be caused by "things" like machinery and equipment, materials and substances, conditions of environment, etc., being used or in existence (unsafe conditions). It can also be created by the possible actions and inaction of people (unsafe acts).

Hazards are the sources of risk. So identifying hazards is the first thing we need to do in risk assessment. Some hazards may be obvious and may be identified by common sense but some may not. The objective at this stage is to reveal as many hazards as possible. Additional hazards may still be identified at later stages in the planning process or in the actual work process and we can always add them to the list for appropriate control measures.

The key to performing hazards identification is "systematic" and "methodological". First of all, you need to know very well about your work process, including the types of machinery, equipment, tools, materials and substances, people, etc., to be involved, and the procedure to be adopted. These may be regarded as the basic "components" of the work process.

If hazards are the sources of risk, the basic components of a work process as mentioned above can be regarded as the sources of hazards, or the upper stream sources of risk because each of these components would present specific hazards. Therefore it would be important to have a more comprehensive identification of hazards by systematically examining the corresponding hazards produced by each of these components that make up the work process.

2. Hazards Analysis

At this stage, we examine the characteristics and properties of each of the hazards identified to determine how and in what ways they can cause harm to people. The existence of a hazard may not necessarily result in an accident causing injury or damage. There needs to have certain conditions or causal factors (or things that may go wrong) for that to happen. We need to identify those conditions so that we can establish measures to prevent them from occurring.

3. Risk Estimation and Evaluation

Risk estimation is the measurement of the risk by considering the likelihood of the potential of a hazard being realized, and the severity of its realization (i.e. the consequence of the accident). There are many means and tools for risk estimation. A "Risk Matrix" is commonly used for representing the magnitude of risk by assigning ranks for the parameters of "likelihood" and "severity" respectively.

On the basis of risk estimation, an evaluation can be made as to whether the risk is acceptable or what priority should be given for actions if a particular risk is considered not acceptable.

4. Determination of Control Measures

Risk can normally be reduced through one or several safety control measures. The reduction can apply to either or both of the consequences or the probability of the occurrence of a harmful event. The control measures may be by ways of "engineering controls" or "administrative/management controls". The former may refer to hardware such as guards, barriers, exhaust ventilation and other safety installations while the latter may refer to software issues such as warning signs, adequate supervision, training, safe rules and procedures, etc. There is in fact a lot of useful information in the Safety and Environmental Protection Manual and other similar documents that can be used for reference at this stage. However, the particular control measures which are going to be established after you have gone through the previous stages will be much more applicable and effective.

5. Implementation of Control Measures

This is the stage when the established control measures are being put to work. For the control measures to be properly implemented and complied with, they must be properly communicated to everyone involved in the work process, with appropriate training to be provided as necessary.

Documentation of Risk Assessment

The risk assessment process needs to be properly documented for many reasons. First of all, the safety procedures and other control measures need to be clearly written down so that people can easily follow. The information recorded can also be used for reference in the future for similar work processes. Furthermore, proper documentation could serve as the important records/evidence for proving the safety efforts which have been made by the management and supervisory personnel in the fulfillment of their safety liabilities.

Risk assessment can be documented in many ways depending on the kind of information being recorded and how the information/records would be used. One commonly used format is in the form of a worksheet (tables) summarizing the important findings of the risk assessment, including description of the hazards, possible causal factors for accidents, consequences of accidents, people at risk, necessary control measure, actions taken, etc.

The Way Forward

HSEO has been conducting (mostly workplace) risk assessments for workplace that is considered to have a higher risk, e.g. laboratories and workshops. The findings have been recorded in our risk assessment database and shared with the responsible persons of the workplace for appropriate actions. However, it would be much more effective if risk assessment can become an integral part in conducting all work activities at HKUST, especially for those having higher risk such as research projects in the laboratories. It is our aim to work with units concerned to review their existing effort and to formulate a unit-specific risk assessment process to meet this objective.