The death of maintenance engineer Gary Whiting, 51, at the BAE Systems (Operations) Ltd plant in Brough was an “entirely preventable tragedy”  so said the Health and Safety Executive at the conclusion of its prosecution against the company following the accident in which Mr Whiting was killed.  During the routine maintenance, by a four-man team, of a large metal press, the size of a two-bedroom house, serious safety failings led to Mr Whiting being crushed beneath the 145 ton machine. The Crown Court at Hull was told that the 4 maintenance workers were working in pairs at opposite sides of the machine and neither pair could properly see the other and that the work had not been properly assessed or planned. The company entered a plea of guilty to a breach of Section 2 (1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, as a result of which it was fined £250,000 and ordered to pay £97,153 costs.

Safety failings uncovered by HSE’s investigation included an absence of a suitable assessment of the risks associated with the maintenance process as a result of which the company had failed to identify the control measures required to prevent entry by workers to dangerous parts of the machine during the procedure or to stop the machine if anyone did enter a danger zone.

The case illustrates the importance of the risk assessment process to the effective management of health and safety at work. Although the illustration relates to a very large piece of machinery it is important that managers should identify and understand the risks faced by their particular business.

Health and safety risks go beyond the risk of personal injury and may well impact on business assets, environmental issues, product or service quality and customer satisfaction. If a business does not profile the risks it faces, the likelihood of adverse effects occurring, the associated costs, the potential for disruption and the effectiveness of existing controls it will be unable to effectively manages and avoid those risks.

In health and safety terms the level of detail required in risk assessment should be proportionate to the risks. Insignificant risks and those associated with the routine activities of daily life can usually be ignored. They may, however, need to be taken into account if the work activity significantly increases the risk. Similarly risk assessment does not need to anticipate risks that are not foreseeable.

In a small business where there are just a few simple hazards the risk assessment process can be a very straightforward process based on informed judgement and reference to recognised guidance.

Where the hazards are more complicated and in medium sized businesses the risk assessment will need to be more sophisticated, more enquiring and with greater detail. There may well be aspects of the business that require special consideration, for example, exposure to hazardous substances, noise or radiation which may need to be measured to ascertain whether controls are adequate. The need for occupational health surveillance will also need to be considered where hazardous substances are used and there are valid techniques for identifying the early onset of related ill-health.

Larger sites and those with particularly hazardous activities will require the most complex and detailed of risk assessments. The assessments will need to pay as much attention to maintenance and repair as to routine operations and will need to benchmark procedures and arrangements against published standards and guidance to show that risk is being controlled so far as is reasonably practicable.

A sensible approach to assessment will allow senior managers to identify their priorities for reducing risk. It will allow them to make cost effective simple actions (‘quick fixes’), alongside planning for long term solutions to the more complex and costly issues.

Businesses properly managing risk assessments and setting realistic priorities will have managers who:

  • Own health and safety and have thought about the consequences of a serious incident or injury.
  • Have made sure that risk assessments have been competently completed and have prioritised actions to reduce risks.
  • Identified and instructed staff to be responsible for implementing those actions to an agreed timetable.
  • Think about the consequences of change, whether new technology or a different way of completing routine work, and take them into account.
  • Ensure that their staff are trained to follow company procedures and use the facilities and equipment provided.
  • Monitor compliance.
  • Report hazards and concerns so that they can be considered before anything untoward happens.
  • Routinely review their procedures and performance.
  • Routinely consult with their workers in the identification of hazards and risks, control measures and the solution of problems.

By Tony Trenear