Health and Safety
Managing Occupational Health and Safety
Occupational Health and Safety Management (OH&S) is primarily concerned with protecting the safety, health and welfare of people engaged in work of any kind. The goal of all occupational safety and health programs therefore is to foster a safe work environment. In practical terms, this usually means providing safe premises, safe machinery and materials, safe systems of work, information, instruction, training and supervision which help to enhance safety and finally bringing about a suitable physical working environment and facilities. These goals are often written into national legislation for any given workplace but they are often best brought about in practical day-to-day terms by a focused approach to managing occupational health and safety in the most proactive way possible (and not being simply reactive whenever an accident or near miss occurs).
Hazards and risk
A large part of the process of managing OH&S (at least in the initial stages) is in carrying out a well-structured hazard identification process followed by thorough risk assessment. This can then provide the basis for risk management, which includes risk elimination (where possible) or mitigation.
In basic terms, hazards are situations that have the potential to cause harm to individuals or property. The key word here is “potential.” Many situations are “hazardous,” but actually present little in the way of risk. To take an everyday risk example, gambling at the casino is a hazard in that it can cause injury to our bank balance. However, to judge the real level of risk (the likelihood and consequence of this occurring) we must consider how often we gamble, our level of expertise in the games we play, the level of bias we perceive to be in the games, and finally the “health” of our current bank balance.
Risk assessment and subsequent management and mitigation is a process in which individual hazards of the workplace are identified, assessed and controlled/ eliminated as close to source (location of the hazard) as reasonable and possible. This ensures not only better OH&S management as it relates to people but also extends to better outcomes for environmental sustainability at a wider level.
OH&S Management: The Process Steps
Risk assessment is nothing more than the careful examination of what, in the workplace, could have an adverse impact on people or property so that an assessment of whether enough precautions have been taken to reduce the overall risks involved can be made. Risk assessment as a process therefore revolves around the formal appraisal or measurement of hazards in the workplace that have the potential for damage to life, health or property. The measurement or level of risk can be determined in a number of different ways. However, the main methods used are to calculate how likely it is that the risk of harm will occur and then assess the consequences or impact of the harm caused.
In practical terms, risk assessment has to start with identification of all the possible hazards, situations or events where plant, equipment, processes or particular tasks can lead to problems. This identification exercise is best done in a formal and structured way, generally using a risk assessment form. Hazard identification is fundamentally a common sense exercise when done carefully. The first step that anyone can take is to watch people performing tasks or look specifically at plant or equipment or general conditions of work that have harm or damage potential. This is intended to focus assessment on known or visible hazards in the workplace and that people may be compensating for in their actions.
In addition to specific plant and equipment or specific conditions of work, workplace practices or behavior also need to be reviewed separately. In fact, it is usually the case that behavioral risk is many times greater than physical or condition-based risk. This is simply because an individual can turn a hazard into a risk just by changing the way they think or work (including deciding that they will ignore the safety rules for the job or not wear protective equipment for instance). For example, a pool of sharks guarded by a fence is a significant hazard but not a risk until an individual decides that a morning swim is a good idea, ignores the warning sign, jumps the fence and dives into the pool. Unfortunately, every individual is capable of making a risk out of even minor hazards which can give rise to serious accidents.
Managing OH&S involves providing safe premises, safe machinery and materials, safe systems of work, information, instruction, training and supervision which help to enhance safety and bringing about a suitable physical working environment and facilities. Good hazard identification and risk assessment (followed by a well-executed risk management plan) are an ideal way to start to meet these obligations for every leader of people.