Risk assessments: Following these simple steps helps make safety a habit

Making safety a priority just makes good business sense. But is it really a habit at your place? The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) thinks it should be. Over the past year or so, the agency has shown renewed interest in workplace safety—and also in one of the primary tools available for promoting it: the risk assessment. See the four phases of risk assessment.


Making safety a priority just makes good business sense. But is it really a habit at your place? The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) thinks it should be. Over the past year or so, the agency has shown renewed interest in workplace safety—and also in one of the primary tools available for promoting it: the risk assessment.

Risk assessments are a means for scrutinizing a process or piece of equipment and identifying its associated hazards. The severity of each hazard is rated through a weight system, which is used to prioritize those risks. Then, that information can be used to eliminate those risks, or mitigate them to a tolerable level.

Applying risk assessment concepts in the workplace is critical to establishing and maintaining safety for a number of reasons—not the least of which is to be prepared for an OSHA compliance visit. But they are not typically easy to do. Understanding a few basic concepts goes a long way toward getting an assessment done, and making safety the habit it should be.

Getting started

Risk assessments are interpretive,” admits Scott Krumwiede, manager, RWD Technologies, a leading provider of human and operational performance improvement solutions, “which can make them difficult to perform. If you are not familiar with all aspects of your equipment…if you have no experience in determining and rating hazards…it may be hard to determine what ‘tolerable’ is. In some cases, it may be better to enlist the help of experts, who are typically more objective, acquainted with the means to alleviate hazards, and often able to see things the plant does not.”

Regardless of who performs the risk assessment, it needs to be applied to equipment at three primary stages: design, build, and install.

- Design. Hazards are most economically designed out of equipment early on. The first risk assessments should be done by the OEM, although admittedly OEMs can safeguard equipment only so far. “They can’t predict how machinery will be used or how it relates to other plant systems when they may be building something 3,000 miles from where it will be installed,” says Krumwiede. “Some OEMs even fear risk assessments will cause them to incur liability,” he adds. “However, a risk assessment, whether by the OEM or the employer, shows due diligence. If an incident occurs later, it proves steps were taken to mitigate the equipment hazards.”

- Build. A second look at the stage identifies hazards that may have been missed initially and enables them to be mitigated or eliminated at this point. “Everything can’t be caught the first time an assessment is done,” says Krumwiede. “At the build stage, safety can be engineered into a system because fabrication is still underway and the necessary people and tools are on hand to do it.”

- Install. Installation provides a third time to examine the machine, and whatever interfaces with it. “Regardless of when else you do a risk assessment,” says Krumwiede, “doing it at the pre-production stage or as the equipment goes into production is most critical. An assessment here more accurately reflects the way operators interface with the machine and brings to light what may or may not be hazardous. Observing the machine at this stage shows how it will operate in real time.”

Four phases of a risk assessment

Every risk assessment, no matter how many times it is performed, has four phases:

1. Assess the equipment and the process and identify all associated tasks. Talk to the designers to ascertain the intent of the equipment. Observe how the machine is used. Identify anything that could be considered a hazard. If a machine already has a guard, assess the hazard as it would be without the guard and determine the reason for the guard. “This is a hazard identification stage,” says Krumwiede. “Make no judgments or interpretations at this point; assess the machine in the raw unguarded state.”

2. Associate a severity risk level with each observed hazard. To weight a hazard, associate it with the probability it will occur, and then calculate a rating based on probability and severity. Matrices are available to help organize hazards. “Ask ‘how bad is bad?’” says Krumwiede.

3. Develop a mitigation strategy based on the identified issues. The goal is to eliminate the hazard. If it can’t be eliminated, it must be reduced to a tolerable level. “Experience helps in determining what is tolerable,” says Krumwiede. “Amputation, for example, is not tolerable.”

4. Reassess your assessment. Once all hazards have been identified, weighted, and eliminated or mitigated to a tolerable level, step back and reassess to ensure everything has been eliminated or reduced to a tolerable level.

Begin—and end—with hazard recognition

Risk assessment is a complex process that involves both equipment and personnel issues. Merely guarding against a hazard isn’t always the answer. If a guard slows a machine’s production rate or interferes with an operator’s movement, the operator will likely find ways to circumvent it. Good risk assessment establishes procedures to follow in addition to installing guards for protection.

Use observation relentlessly to identify hazards. “Written procedures developed by the plant and by the OEM are good,” says Krumwiede, “but they often don’t match. The more important question is how will the equipment be used once it is installed and running? Make hazard recognition a habit. Evaluate every hazard, no matter how small. Then decide what can be done to fix it!”

Be aware that maintenance is a separate issue. Maintenance workers interface with equipment differently than an operator. “They put a machine into manual mode and manipulate it into the position they need it to be in to find or fix a problem,” says Krumwiede. “The mechanic goes where an operator typically would not.”

Finally, assess and reassess. Risk assessment never ends. Any time a machine process, controls, or mechanics change, that portion of the equipment needs to be examined again. And all equipment should be reviewed annually even if no changes occur. Ultimately, safety rests with the employer, and risk assessment helps achieve it. Make safety—and risk assessment—a habit.

For more on equipment safety, visit the Siemens Website at


For more on risk assessments, visit the RWD Technologies Website at www.rwd.com.

Also read:

- Risk assessment: How do I weight manufacturing hazards that I’ve found? The risk involved with a given machine or process depends on what bad things can happen, and how likely they are. This risk analysis tutorial explains how to weight hazards.

- Risk assessments: Use consensus standards to help identify, evaluate, mitigate hazards - Risk assessments are among the best tools available for plants to use to promote workplace safety. They are a means for scrutinizing a process or piece of equipment to identify hazards, determine the severity of those hazards, and eliminate them or mitigate them to a tolerable level. Here are five major standards are currently associated with risk assessment, and one more you should know.

- Manufacturing risk mitigation, re-assessment, and the future - Tutorial: The first pass at making a risk assessment looks at the machine in its raw condition – without interlocks, guards, and other safety features. This allows us to clearly identify the possible failure conditions, and how likely they are to arise on their own. The second step is to... 

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