The importance of assessing risks in the workplace...

01 April 2016, at 1:00am

George Roberts examines the issue of health and safety in veterinary practices and why it’s essential to view all the risks from everyone’s point of view.

THE WORDS “HEALTH AND SAFETY” ARE OFTEN MET BY MOANS AND GROANS FROM EMPLOYERS who see it as even more red tape preventing them from running their business in the way they choose.

In truth, health and safety has been used unfairly as a scapegoat by businesses for many years. The aim of health and safety regulation has never been to restrict working practices, but instead to ensure that all risks are accounted for and kept to an acceptable level. Essentially, doing the job in the right way, safely. 

Assessing the risks 

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that one in every two injuries at work is caused as a result of either a slip, trip or fall or by the handling, lifting or carrying of objects. The HSE (in a 2013 document, Farmwise) also reckons that one person a week dies from agriculturally-linked work. 

It is not enough for practices to concentrate all their efforts on specific risks; instead they are required to evaluate the particular risks associated with their own practice and put adequate control measures in place to minimise those risks.

The most common way of assessing the health and safety risks to your practice is by way of a formal risk assessment. There is no prescribed format for a risk assessment but generally the process has a number of steps.

Firstly, you need to create a list of all the identifiable hazards in your practice – anything which may cause harm, such as chemicals, electricity, working at height and especially for vets that visit farms, moving vehicles. 

To do this you should think about the following: slip and trip hazards and general housekeeping such as loose leads and misaligned flooring, etc.; manual handling risks including how heavy items such as large animals and equipment, etc., are moved; the use and storage of hazardous substances that involve (say) drugs and chemicals, etc.; the use of machinery, any list of which could comprise x-ray machines, rehab treadmills and lighting systems, etc.; the use of portable electrical equipment including ultrasound and sterilisers, etc.; working from height meaning the use of ladders and access to storage areas, etc.; and vehicle movements such as vans, client parking and pedestrian walkways, etc. 

Next you need to identify who is at risk and why. For example, employees who risk injuries or back pain from handling heavy/bulky objects or clients who may slip on paths. After that you need to set out what steps you are already taking to address the risks identified.

From here the next stage is to ask yourself whether you could be doing anything else to control that risk such as more frequent checks of machinery, handrails fitted to raised storage areas, employee training; and if you can take further steps to control the risk, identify who in the practice is responsible for doing so and set a date as to when it must be completed by.

The completed risk assessment must be kept under frequent review. It should be date-stamped and reviewed at least once every year. However, in certain circumstances it should be looked at more frequently.

A good example of this is following an accident, where an employee suggests an improvement, or where working practices have changed – possibly when new machinery has been purchased or new operating procedures have been introduced.

A risk assessment which is properly implemented and accurately records the perceived hazards and risks of a practice will take it some way to compliance with health and safety laws in the UK.

The cost of getting it wrong

If you fail to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the safety of your employees, clients and others who are affected by your practice, it’s quite likely that you may face criminal prosecution. In some cases a prosecution may also be brought against individual employees, senior managers or directors where it can be shown that they were specifically at fault for a breach of the law.

Fines for health and safety offences are generally “unlimited” and consequently any criminal conviction is likely to result in significant fines (and the potential for imprisonment of individuals).

Additionally, unless covered by your insurance, the practice may have to pay for its own legal costs and (if convicted) the legal costs incurred by the prosecution.

So consider the October 2014 case of a Bedfordshire veterinary practice – Davies Veterinary Specialists Limited – that was ned after workers were potentially exposed to harmful substances found in animal chemotherapy drugs prepared at the veterinary practice over a four-year period. The practice pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and was ned £35,000 and ordered to pay £50,378 in costs.

Naturally, any conviction will also have a knock-on effect on your practice’s reputation.

All health and safety convictions are recorded on a central database and searchable by members of the public.

Following an accident or incident you may also have to deal with civil claims brought against the practice by individuals who have been injured. Usually, your insurance policy will cover you for these types of claims but you should check your policy carefully to ensure that you have ample coverage.

Dealing with civil claims from your own employees as well as hurt customers can be very emotive, time- consuming and costly. You should also expect your insurance policy renewal to increase following a health and safety breach.

Finally, the most obvious consequence of getting it wrong is that you or your employees will be exposed to the risk of injury. In some circumstances, exposure to risk can result in serious injury and even death.

In the year April 2014 to March 2015, 142 workers went to work and never returned home. Thankfully, deaths are a rare occurrence but that figure re-iterates the importance of managing health and safety risks so that you and your business can avoid the ultimate cost of getting it wrong.