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The Fundamentals of Risk Assessment: Why It Matters

A risk assessment is a fundamental part of health and safety practice. It is important because it helps us to take steps to keep ourselves and others safe. It is a legal requirement for most businesses to conduct and review risk assessments. 

The basic principles of risk assessment can also be applied in a wider context. Risk assessment matters because it helps to inform decision-making and take steps that keep us safer. Knowing how to spot a hazard and how to avoid or remove it can protect our own wellbeing, as well as safeguard the environment and people around us. 

What is Risk Assessment?

A risk assessment is a structured way of identifying what may cause a problem or harm to a person or thing and how to reduce this from happening. 

In life, people sometimes talk about taking calculated risks – this is when they weigh up whether the potential harm that may come from taking a risk is worth it against the potential payoff. An example is investing in a volatile area such as cryptocurrency, where you may lose all your money if the value of your asset crashes but stand to gain a lot of money if the value increases. The decision to take this type of risk will likely depend on a person’s personality and financial circumstances, with most of us erring on the side of caution. 

As we grow and our brain develops, we begin to be able to identify hazards and understand that they may cause harm. A toddler may run straight into the road without looking, but by school age most children will have developed a sense of road safety. They will understand that moving cars pose a hazard to soft bodies and that running in front of one puts them at risk of severe harm. To mitigate this, we learn to look both ways before crossing the road. In this instance, we have made a risk assessment and put a control measure in place so we don’t get hurt.

As well as being useful in daily life, risk assessments are a fundamental part of general health and safety at work. Key legislation covering health and safety in the workplace includes:

  • Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
  • Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

At work, a risk assessment is a written record of hazards, risks and controls. This record can be kept, adapted and updated to ensure compliance with policy, as well as ensure our practices do not endanger the wellbeing of employees, the wider public and the world around us, as far as possible. 

Here is a glossary of terms relating to risk assessment:

  • Hazards – Hazards are things that could cause harm.
  • Harm – Harm is an adverse effect on a person (such as pain, discomfort, upset, injury, or even death). It can also refer to damage to a building, area or the environment.
  • Control – Control measures minimise or mitigate the chance of harm happening as a result of a hazard. Controls are put in place to keep us safer when a hazard cannot be fully eliminated.
  • Risk – A risk is a combination of how likely harm is to occur and how serious it may be.
  • Risk assessment – A procedure (often used by businesses) that identifies hazards, evaluates risks and decides what control measures to put in place to remove or reduce them.
Risk assessments why it matters

The Process of Risk Assessment

A risk assessment follows basic steps:

  • Identify hazards
  • Assess the risks
  • Control the risks
  • Record your findings
  • Review your controls

Very large or high-risk businesses may require additional advice and controls; however, in general, the above steps are what is needed to conduct a risk assessment.

Identify hazards

This may include equipment, chemicals, the condition of the premises or layout of the building and the type of work you undertake. For each hazard you identify, think about how people could potentially be harmed.

Assess the risks

To assess risks, you need to make sensible judgements about who could be harmed as a result of any hazards you identified and how. You will also need to assess the level of risk (how serious the harm may be and how likely it is to occur).

To further assess risks, think about:

  • Who may be harmed and how
  • What steps you are already taking to reduce this risk
  • What further steps or actions are needed to further control this risk
  • Who will carry out this action
  • Set a date for when the action needs to be completed (which should ideally be as soon as possible)

Control the risks

You may be able to control the risk by removing the hazard altogether. If this is not possible, you need to take steps to control the risk and reduce the chance of someone coming to harm because of it.

It is not possible to remove all risks in most business areas. What you need to be able to demonstrate as an employer or manager is that you took all ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to minimise or mitigate the risks you identified. 

This might look like:

  • Putting up additional signage
  • Providing personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Changing your processes/methods
  • Conducting additional training
  • Tidying and reorganising the workspace
  • Buying alternative products

Record your findings 

If you employ more than five people you are required to keep a record of your findings, but it is good practice to do it anyway, regardless of the scope of your operation. 

When you record your findings, minimally, you should include:

  • Any hazards you identified
  • Who may be harmed as a result of these hazards and how
  • Steps you have taken to reduce or remove the risks

Ensure that you also record the times and dates of your risk assessments and any follow-ups, as you are required to periodically review any controls you have in place.

Review your controls

Risk assessments need to be periodically reviewed and you need to record any changes that you make and update the risk assessment as necessary.

Additionally, you should review your controls:

  • When significant changes are made (to processes, staff, location etc.)
  • Based on feedback from workers
  • In response to an incident or near miss
risk assessment

The Importance of Risk Assessment in Business

Businesses are required by law to protect their employers and the general public from harm. Risk assessments are important in health and safety management across all industries including in retail businesses, hotels, leisure centres, factories and offices. It is also important to carry out risk assessments in schools, universities and hospitals.

A robust risk assessment procedure that is routinely reviewed and updated will help to keep your workplace safe. In the year 2022/23 60,645 employees sustained a non-fatal injury that was reported by an employer (RIDDOR). Tragically, in the same year, 135 workers were killed in work-related accidents (RIDDOR). The majority of fatal accidents occurred in the construction industry but, more surprisingly, of these 135 fatalities, 9 worked in admin and support. This demonstrates just how important it is to safeguard and protect all staff in all industries from hazards.

You may have to conduct additional risk assessments on vulnerable employees such as for lone working or if workers become pregnant. This allows you to identify if any additional controls need to be put in place to keep your workers safe. 

You can find templates for risk assessments on the HSE website as well as examples that cover the following business areas:

  • Office based
  • Shops/retail
  • Food preparation and service
  • Motor vehicle repair shop
  • Factory maintenance work
  • Warehouse

A risk assessment must be carried out by a competent person. It also needs to be unique to your business and business premises and cover the specific hazards and controls that your business needs. 

To help you conduct your risk assessment you should: 

  • Talk to your workers as they may see things you do not, or have good ideas to contribute
  • Make use of any online resources available to you
  • Record ‘near misses’ as well as accidents or incidents to identify problems early on

If you are feeling overwhelmed or unsure about how to conduct a risk assessment, consider paying for an independent health and safety expert to assist you or contact your local authority for advice.

Risk Assessment in Healthcare

Risk assessment plays a role in key areas within the healthcare and social care sectors, including:

  • Patient safety
  • Treatment decisions
  • Disease prevention
  • Logistics

Patients in a healthcare setting are often in a vulnerable state and it is vital that they get the right treatment and are not exposed to additional harm. 

It is also important that healthcare workers (including doctors, nurses, domestic assistants, cleaners and care workers) are not exposed to unnecessary hazards and that all necessary steps are taken to protect them from harm.

This includes key risk management controls in healthcare such as:

  • Appropriate PPE and tools
  • Staff being fully trained and competent for their role
  • Infection control
  • Manual handling protocol
  • Drug control
  • Cleaning and sanitising of equipment and surfaces
  • Compliance with working regulations

Hospitals, clinics and care homes will require risk assessments for each of the key areas of operation including their clinical settings, office spaces and cleaning systems. You may need to conduct additional risk assessments that cover vulnerable populations (such as dementia patients).

Risk Assessment in Personal Life

We assess risk on a day-to-day basis. Some people are risk-averse and others are risk-takers. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. Understanding, controlling and avoiding risks in our lives can help to keep us safe, prevent us from making poor financial decisions and help us to make informed decisions. 

Below are some examples of situations where we assess risk in our personal lives. See if your answers align with the answers given!

Should I go for a hike on a hot day without my mobile phone or a bottle of water? 

No. The risks are that you could get lost or injured and have no way of calling for help. You may also become dehydrated – in an isolated area on a very hot day the consequences could be fatal. 

In short, the risks here are isolation, injury and dehydration. To control the risks, take a fully charged mobile phone, take adequate water and make sure someone else knows where you are planning on going. 

Is it a good idea to buy this £200 handbag when I am already in my overdraft?

Probably not. It is important to make sensible decisions around personal finances, avoiding debt and making sure we have the money for essentials. An expensive handbag is not an essential purchase; buying it risks pushing you further into debt.

I’m already late for work, should I drive my car through this deep flood water? 

No. Your boss probably won’t be happy that you are late but entering flood water with your vehicle risks damage to the brakes and risks your safety. Just 30cm is enough to make you lose control of the car and 60cm of moving water can carry a vehicle away. To control the risk, pull over somewhere safe away from flooding, call your boss and find a new route.

 I have a lactose intolerance, is it okay to eat this chocolate that has a precautionary label that says may contain traces of milk

Most likely, yes. A lactose intolerance is not the same as an allergy and usually you need to consume a significant amount of the allergen to have a reaction. A precautionary label is to warn consumers that a trace element of an allergen may be present due to cross-contact. The risk of harm here is low and does not need to be controlled.

I am planning a trip abroad and would love to visit Haiti. Is this a good idea?

Not right now. Current travel advice advises against foreign travellers going to Haiti as the country is experiencing a significant period of political and economic unrest plus a food shortage. Infrastructure and healthcare are very limited in Haiti at the moment. 

The risk here is travel to a foreign country. To assess the risk, you can conduct some research about the destination you want to travel to. Holidaying in a dangerous country is unnecessary and the best way to minimise this risk is by going to a safer destination. 

We can also use risk assessment principles in our relationships. When emotions are involved, it is more difficult to be objective; however, it is important to make sensible judgements and enforce boundaries. 

Applying risk assessment principles and making sensible judgements about our friendships and relationships can help to safeguard our personal safety (both physical and emotional) from harm. If something seems off, the best way to control the risk is to remove yourself from the situation. 

The fundamentals of risk assessment


Risk assessment is a crucial part of operating as a compliant and safe business. Not all risks can be removed; however, we can take steps to avoid or reduce them. 

If you are ready to write a risk assessment for your workplace but want to avoid some of the common mistakes that people make, check out our blog on avoiding common pitfalls here

The principles of risk assessment can be applied in a wider context than a business setting. So many times we hear stories about how people ignored red flags and ended up getting hurt. The ability to identify hazards and judge risks can help us to make informed decisions that keep ourselves and those around us safer. 

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About the author

Vicky Miller

Vicky Miller

Vicky has a BA Hons Degree in Professional Writing. She has spent several years creating B2B content and writing informative articles and online guides for clients within the fields of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, recruitment, education and training. Outside of work she enjoys yoga, world cinema and listening to fiction podcasts.

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