Get Value out of Your Hazard Assessment Process

I don’t know how many audits I have conducted over the last 20 years but I know it is in the hundreds. One of the areas that I have found hardest to assess as an auditor is the hazard assessment process. It costs companies hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars a year to comply with government and/or audit protocol hazard assessment requirements. Unfortunately, these companies frequently fail to reap the value hidden in the hazard assessment process.

Consider the amount of work that goes into systematically assessing every job and task in a company, then reviewing the assessments with employees and updating the documents as necessary. Then, multiply this by the number of companies participating in this assessment requirement and you are looking at an incredible amount of human effort that goes into the formal assessment of hazards. Sadly, many companies do not benefit from all the work that has gone into creating these documents.  More often than not, when I request hazard assessment documents for review, I first have to blow the dust off the assessment binder. If you have a binder of hazard assessment documents that have been completed more to show to your auditor to review and score, you are missing a great opportunity to eliminate employee hazards.

There are essentially two types of hazard assessments commonly used.  There is the type of assessment legislation often requires employees to complete just prior to carrying out a job.  This is often called a pre-job assessment. Then there is the general assessment that is created on an employee’s position or job/task.  Both types of assessments have a lot of similarities but their differences require that that we examined them separately.

Pre-job Hazard Assessment

First let’s look at pre-job hazard assessments. In many parts of the world, workers are required by legislation to complete a pre-job hazard assessment before commencing work. Personally, I think the introduction of the legislation to formally pre-assess job hazards is a long overdue requirement. Critics of this assessment process will tell you that workers are already informally assessing their tasks before they commence work; and question why we would want to duplicate their informal assessment with a formal one. The reality is, and incident statistics back this up, many workers do not conduct informal assessments, at least not good ones. Other arguments I have heard against the use of the assessment documents is that the assessment only requires employees to check off a bunch of check boxes and once completed, they get little real benefit from the document. I’ve reviewed many of these documents and generally find the assessment forms do a pretty good job of covering off routine repetitive work but do a poor job of challenging employees to assess the new hazards of their ever changing work environment.

When asked what they think of the company assessment process, many of the employees I’ve interviewed respond negatively. I maintain it is the generally only the employees creating poor quality assessments that have poor perceptions of the process. And, if the company accepts poor quality assessments, that is what they will get. If you have been experiencing some negative feedback on your assessment process, you should be looking for ways to improve the quality of the assessments. The following tips will help you do just that:

  1. Make sure all assessments are in fact being completed before the work is carried out. As an auditor, I have discovered some workers in the lunch room completing the assessments before they get to the jobsite. Others I’ve discovered completing them in their trucks after the job has been completed. Clearly, these employees view the process as just another wasteful management requirement that stands in the way of getting the work done. I don’t know of any worker that could see benefit in an assessment completed on route to the job site or after the work was carried out. This issue is easily solved by supervisors conducting frequent checks for completed assessments to ensure they have been completed on site before commencing work.
  2. Assess hazard assessments for quality and let employees know if they are meeting quality expectations. If the assessments you are reviewing are littered with phrases like “be careful”, “be aware”, “be safe”, “keep mind on task”, “wear appropriate PPE”, they may be missing the opportunity to provide quality preventive direction in the assessment. Show employees examples of assessments that meet the quality expectations. Show them your completed assessment or, with permission, the completed assessments of peers whose assessments meet quality expectations.
  3. Recognize employees for completing quality hazard assessments. There are many methods one can use to recognize employees from a simple pat on the back to handing out movie passes to those employees whose assessments meet the quality standards. Negative consequences should be administered to employees not meeting expectations or not completing the assessments.
  4. Design the assessment document so that it is easy to complete but be sure the form requires workers to think and document all potential hazards. In an effort to make the assessment process easier for workers to complete, some companies have created assessment forms that do not challenged the worker to identify hazards of a changing work environment. The result is assessments that are the same for every work site. They may catch routine task hazards common to all sites but miss other new hazards unique to a changing work environment. The result is predictable, unrecognized hazards will result in an incident.

Pre-job hazard assessments are an excellent preventive tool that employees can use to assess their work and work site hazards before the work is carried out. Make sure your company is getting all of the potential benefits out this process. Demand high quality assessments from your employees.

General Hazard Assessments

The requirement to complete general hazard assessments is commonly found in many basic management system audit tools. Fifty years ago, few people had heard of these assessments.  Safe work procedures were supposed to cover off all health and safety hazards of the tasks. General assessments are the assessments of employee positions, tasks and hazards. They typically have a risk quantification component and requiring a risk rating for every identified task hazard.

Before your company can benefit from the general assessment documents that your people so painstakingly create, you need to first make sure that the assessments are quality documents. Assess them for quality through the following actions:

  1. Remove vague phrases such as “be aware” or “be careful.” Add words describing specifically how hazards will be controlled. Don’t state wear “appropriate PPE”, state specifically what PPE is required to safely carry out the task.
  2. Ensure the assessments evaluate each task individually and each hazard individually. Do not accept assessments that group hazards and controls. When hazards are grouped, it is impossible to assess the risk to the group. In addition, the corrective actions identified to control the group hazards are not specific enough to effectively eliminate the hazards.
  3. Ensure that every hazard corrective action not completed is assigned for action and dates identified for completion.  Monitor and hold employees accountable for completion. Management pays a stiff price for inaction as they lose credibility and trust of their workers.

All health and safety documents should be created for the benefit of the company. No document should be created to simply meet audit protocol requirements. Here are some suggestions on how to benefit from quality hazard assessments:

  • Employee orientation:

New employees should have the opportunity to review all assessment documents relative to their work. This is an excellent way to help a new employee get orientated to their job tasks and hazards.

  • Work procedures:

Use hazard assessments to update work procedures and practices. If the assessment documents are updated regularly, there is often new preventive information that should also be updated into the procedures. Employees typically refer directly to a procedure for work direction — not the assessment document. This will result in procedures that are up to date and reflect all hazard assessment information. One could argue the assessment and procedure documents should be one document. I have clients that had great success in merging the two documents.

  • Training:

Training opportunities are frequently identified in the corrective action section of the hazard assessment. Make sure these opportunities are incorporated into future employee training requirements. This will help ensure your employees are 100 per cent prepared to safely do the work they may be required to do.

From this auditor’s perspective, success in health and safety has a great deal to do with quality of the documents.  I have seen a lot of companies score high on some audit protocols because they have met document requirements yet interviews suggest they are not safe companies to work for.  If one doesn’t ensure the assessment documents are of high quality, employees will not value them. If the assessments are not valued, they will not be used for other preventive purposes such as to identify training needs and improve work procedures. Good quality assessments play a central role in any incident prevention program.