Answers to common questions about risk assessments in schools and care settings
What is a risk assessment?
A risk assessment is a careful examination of procedures and practices, in your school, care setting or any place of work, that could cause harm to people. The aim is to enable you to make an accurate judgement about whether suitable precautions have been put in place or whether you should do more to prevent harm. A risk assessment considers two independent variables:
- the nature and extent of the worst case harm that can reasonably be foreseen
- the various factors determining the likelihood that the potential harm might be realised.
Why do we have to undertake assessments?
There is a requirement in law to undertake “…a suitable and sufficient risk assessment” under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, 1999 (MHSAW) and the Manual Handling Operations Regulations, 1992 (MHOR). Legislation explains that where there is a risk to the health of employees whilst at work, or indeed anybody else affected by a work activity (this could include the children/young adults you work with or visitors to the school such as family members, volunteers or contractors), then a risk assessment must be undertaken. The MHOR asks us to consider an ergonomic approach when undertaking risk assessments.
What is an ergonomic approach?
Ergonomics is the study of the design of equipment, systems and environments concerned with human use. Essentially, it is concerned with the relationship between people and their working environment. An ergonomic approach considers manual handling activities as a whole and takes into account a wide range of factors, including:
The nature of the task
- Is it repetitive?
- Is there sufficient time for rest and recovery?
- Is it a new or unusual task?
The person (or load) being moved
- How much can she do for herself?
- Is her behaviour unpredictable?
- Are her limbs likely to move involuntarily?
- Is she in any pain or discomfort when moving?
- Might her behaviour be challenging/non-compliant?
- Am I able to communicate effectively with her?
- Are there attachments to consider when moving, such as peg-feed tubing or limb braces?
The working environment
- How much space is available to enable safe movement?
- Is it noisy?
- Are the floors cluttered?
The capabilities of the handlers
- Are they appropriately trained and skilled in the task?
- If two or more staff are involved, are they working well together and communicating effectively?
In practice, these factors are rarely considered in isolation as they interact with and are affected by each other.
Who should undertake risk assessments?
To comply with the legislation, the risk assessor must be “competent”, which is defined as “having sufficient knowledge, training and experience” for the role. The assessor should understand the working environment, workplace activities and the equipment in use. Familiarity with accident and incident trends in the setting is also important.
What makes a good assessment?
An effective risk assessment should be detailed, providing the reader with a comprehensive understanding of the realistic hazards when handling the person concerned, and how you propose to manage these risks.
The details of the child or young person’s physical impairments, and the impact they may have on handling, should be on the document. It is not enough just to state the person’s diagnosis. Simply saying that a child has cerebral palsy is far less useful than describing her specific symptoms. For example, an assessment might say: “Child X has high postural tone affecting both legs. This means that the legs are often stiff, and flexion of the knees and ankles is limited to about a quarter that of a ‘normal’ movement pattern.” Information on the child’s weight bearing ability would also be helpful here.
Another area of the assessment in which detail matters is in the selection of equipment. It is not sufficient to simply write: “use a hoist and sling for transfers”. It would be much more helpful, and indeed safer, to state which type and/or model of hoist and sling (including details of the size) should be used and for which types of transfers. This gives handlers clear, unambiguous information to help them avoid incidents, and discourages guesswork.
Do we have to risk assess all people handling activities?
It is likely that you will have to assess virtually all such activities, because people handling will generally qualify as potentially “hazardous workplace activity”. However, the law asks the assessor to be reasonable and realistic in judging the level of hazard and the likelihood of harm. So, for example, when considering the case of a young person who requires only occasional and very minimal guidance with walking, the risk to the young person or an assisting staff member would probably be very low. A risk assessment may therefore be unnecessary. However, if you are transferring a child onto a changing table for personal care using a hoist and sling, transferring a heavily dependent youngster from the floor to a wheelchair for therapy or play activities, or assisting a person in a wheelchair onto a bus for transport home, the hazards are increased significantly and risk assessments should be undertaken.
The legislation does not specifically say what activities you should assess for; as a competent person, you have to make that decision yourself. After all, you know your setting much better than those who compile and enforce legislation. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself two questions:
- have I done enough to keep everybody safe and healthy?
- could I appear in a court of law and justify my decision?
If the answer to both questions is “yes”, you should be on the right track.
Does the assessment have to be written down?
Assessments should be accessible to those who are at risk of harm when they are undertaking the activity. Generally, they are recorded on paper, but they could be made available on screen.
How often should risk assessments be reviewed?
According to legislation, a risk assessment should be reviewed if there is reason to believe that it is no longer valid, or if there have been significant changes to the situation or individual’s circumstances – for example, if a child’s medical condition has deteriorated or if a child’s weight or height has changed.
Kate Lovett is the Director of manual handling training company EDGE Services: