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Assessing risk in the workplace

caution-dangerOccupational health and safety legislation across Canada requires employers to identify any existing or foreseeable hazards that might arise in the workplace, and to conduct an assessment of these various workplace hazards that employees might be exposed to, or that may arise from the nature of the workplace, and the type and conditions of the work. A hazard is something with the potential to cause harm, injury, illness or death. This can include substances (both hazardous and dangerous) such as noises, chemicals, temperature, electrical, human blood pathogen, plant processes, work processes or other aspects of the work environment.

Those hazards are also called risks. Risk is the likelihood that a harmful consequence (death, injury or illness) will result when exposed to the hazard.

Employers then have an obligation to eliminate employee exposure to the hazards. If this is not reasonably practicable, employers must control the risks by implementing measures to limit the risk of harm to the lowest possible level. The purpose is to prevent employee accidents and injuries arising out of, linked with, or occurring in the course of their employment.

Effective June 15, 2010, in Ontario, employers will have to add violence and harassment to the list of risks they must learn to assess and prevent. It is not only Ontario employers who need to be concerned about preventing and managing violence and harassment in the workplace. Occupational health and safety laws in several jurisdictions, including British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador and in the federally regulated jurisdiction directly address the problem of workplace violence as a health and safety hazard (Manitoba and Saskatchewan include harassment as a risk similar to Ontario). In jurisdictions where no distinct legal duty to prevent workplace violence and harassment is set out in occupational health and safety statutes, the duty falls under the general duty clause, which requires the employer to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.

The distinction to make between assessing the risk of violence and harassment is that the risk of violence requires a proactive assessment while the risk of harassment requires a reactive one. Employers are also not required to perform a proactive risk assessment regarding domestic violence. The risk assessment is reactive, meaning, if a worker or co-worker reports a case of harassment, or the possibility of domestic violence, or if there are visible signs, then a risk assessment should be triggered to ensure that controls are in place to stop the harassing behaviour and the harm that might ensue, or prevent domestic violence from entering the workplace.

Effective risk management involves identifying all hazards in the workplace, and then carrying out a risk assessment for each hazard, to assess the severity of a risk, before deciding its priority and how to deal with it.

Due to the amount of existing and foreseeable risks that can be found in a place of work, and employers’ obligation under the law to identify and control them, your risk assessment must become a risk management process.

In general, the risk management process required is divided into five steps. These steps can be applied to assess any risk, including the risk of violence in the workplace:

  1. Identify hazards, based on experience, recorded data and other information.
  2. Evaluate the level of risk to workers’ health and safety, based on the consequences and likelihood of harm.
  3. Select control measures from the hierarchy of control (e.g., eliminate, substitute, isolate or engineer out the risks, or reduce them through administrative measures or personal protective equipment) by selecting the highest order control method possible and then proceeding down the list in order.
  4. Implement or apply the selected control measure(s) in the workplace. Make sure that every step is documented.
  5. Monitor the control measures to ensure that they are working correctly to control the risks and that no other risks have been introduced.

Further, risk management is an ongoing process that should be undertaken:

  • Now, if it has not been done before
  • When any new work, equipment or material is planned
  • When planning or making a significant change
  • After a complaint or an incident
  • At regular intervals appropriate to the nature of the workplace and the hazards present
  • When legislative obligations (including regulations) require it or change

Following the assessment, employers must prepare a report with the results of their assessment and a plan to address potential areas of concern. Employers must also advise the committee or a health and safety representative, if any, of the results of the assessment, and provide a copy if the assessment is in writing. If there is no committee or health and safety representative, the employer must advise the workers of the results of the assessment and, if the assessment is in writing, provide copies on request or advise workers how to obtain copies.

The results of the risk assessment allow employers to implement their specific-hazard prevention plan and measures to control, eliminate or minimize a specific risk in the workplace.

This involves the development of strategies that eliminate or reduce the risk. There is no one perfect prevention strategy. Employers vary in size, the types of workers employed, corporate culture and resources, and so on. Thus, the risk assessment, prevention plan, controls and measures taken will vary and be specific to a workplace.

The employer must reassess the existing and foreseeable hazards as often as is necessary to ensure that the related policy and program continue to protect workers from specific risks.

What challenges are you encountering when trying to implement your risk assessment process to ensure you are complying with OHS law?

Yosie Saint-Cyr
Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor

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Yosie Saint-Cyr

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 15 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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