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Hazard identification checklists – Why aren’t they working?

In most workplaces, we utilise some sort of checklist to help identify hazards around the work place. Such checklists often look something like the one below:

Walkways/floors/work areas
Passageways kept clear of obstructions
Clear of rubbish
No sharp edges on work benches
Non-slip floor coverings
Floor surfaces even & in good condition
Spills cleaned up thoroughly
No electrical leads crossing walkways
Stairs and risers in good repair
General lighting
Correct level of illumination for tasks
No direct or reflected glare
Light fittings clean and in good condition
Suitable ventilation supplied where required
Air conditioning system inspected, tested and maintained regularly
Local exhaust ventilation provided where required

Have you ever thought about whether this type of Hazard Identification checklist actually identifies hazards? Have you ever wondered why it is that in most cases, there is always something wrong? Have you ever wondered why in some cases you can ‘fill out’ the checklist before you even start looking around because you know that you’ll find the same problems every month etc?

I would suggest that the reason for this is because this style of checklist does not identify hazards. Rather, they provide vital information about how badly our systems of controls have been implemented or maintained.

If you were to honestly analyse these questions, you would find that the comments/ questions specifically relate to a control measure that at some time has been put in place to address a specific hazard or a control we think we should have in place to control the exposure to a hazard.

For example, Non-slip floor coverings. The thing that will actually hurt you and therefore the hazard, is the slippery floors, not the non-slip coverings. Non slip floor coverings are a control measure put in place to reduce the chance/ likelihood of slipping on the floor. Therefore the non-slip coverings are a means by which we attempt to control the chance of slipping on the floor. Further, there are many other control measures for such a hazard, any of which could have been implemented since the last review of the checklist. (We are reviewing the contents of these checklists from time to time aren’t we)?

So if I was to place a tick in the N column against ‘non-slip floor coverings’, what am I commenting on? Is the floor slippery because of the non-slip floor coverings? Are the non-slip floor coverings missing; curling up and presenting a trip hazard, or are they worn to such an extent that the coverings themselves are now slippery? Or, am I saying that the non-slip floor coverings are not effectively controlling the slip hazard? Could it be that the coverings are supposed to be there but they aren’t today (the day I’m conducting the inspection) for a variety of reasons or issues?

Whatever I am saying, I’m always talking about the effectiveness of a control measure, not identifying a hazard.

Further to this concept, there is always the chance, and experience seems to validate this, that the person conducting the checklist inspection will only look at and consider what is on the checklist, thus missing many other hazards. For example, there is always the real risk that those completing the checklist will never identify the hazards associated with carrying out tasks (those unsafe acts or behaviours).

It is okay to ask if work equipment such as fully adjustable chairs and desks are available but it is something else to ask if they are (a) being adjusted and used properly and (b) suitable for the tasks.

A better checklist to truly help identify hazards might look like the one provided below attached to a blank piece of paper. Just give this to those who conduct workplace inspections and get them to inspect an area or observe various tasks at the workplace.

Where? How? Why?
What are the Risk Factors that increase the chance of this happening
Could you slip or trip on anything?
Could something fall on someone, or could you cause something to fall on someone else?
Can you fall in any way?
Could you (including your hair or clothing) be trapped or entangled in anything?
Could there be any uncontrolled movement?
Do I have the training, qualifications and authorisation to perform this task safely?
Is this task a change from what I normally do?
Do I need to communicate the hazards associated with this task with anyone else?
Does the task include lifting or moving heavy, awkward or sharp objects?
Does the task require the worker to work in an un-natural/ uncomfortable position, or in a restricted or confined space?
Could a worker be struck by something or come into contact with anything that could cause you injury (e.g. sharp, abrasive, hot surfaces, hot liquids, low beams etc)?
Could a worker be exposed to any injurious conditions such as chemicals, infectious substances, heat, fumes, dust noise, electricity, flames, steam, ejected particles or fluids?

The Risk Management process requires us to identify hazards, assess the level of risk, control the hazard or reduce the risk and finally to evaluate the effectiveness of the controls.

I suggest that the current plethora of “hazard inspection checklists’ being used at the workplace are more effective at monitoring the success of implementing our controls than actually identifying hazards.

Just food for thought.

This article was provided by Len Collie, Senior Workplace Health and Safety Consultant