Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, PPE has frequently been in the UK‘s headlines. Abi explains why it’s only part of an effective hazard control strategy…
Freeman Brothers has been based in Horsham since 1855 and so has been serving the communities of Sussex and Surrey for 165 years this year. Our plans for our anniversary year have been disrupted by the dreadful COVID-19 pandemic, but work at our offices in North Parade, Horsham, and in Billingshurst, Crawley, and Hurstpierpoint has continued – albeit in many different ways. Most businesses have to undergo risk assessments, but these will be specific to their work – each business will face different risks and these can alter over time. Many businesses are now finding they will have to assess completely different risks than before, and so with this in mind, Freeman Brothers’ Manager, Abi Pattenden, explains how risks – especially around contagion – can be mitigated and reduced, and gives examples of how this is relevant to the current need to social distance.
In the context of assessing risk, it is ironic that we have been hearing so much recently about Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This has been especially in the context of the health service, where shortages (or not) have been a significant issue. However, PPE is actually the least suitable way of mitigating a risk. One reason for this is because it only protects the wearer, rather than altering the nature of the risk, which should always be the desirable course of action.
The complicated-sounding ‘Hierarchy of Hazard Control’ is simply a method which helps you to list possible solutions to managing a risk, in order of preference. These possible solutions are: elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls and, finally, PPE.
Elimination is always the first preference and is about removing the source or cause of a risk. A current example of this is the lockdown under which people have been asked to work from home if they can. The risk to anyone of catching the virus is from contact with other people who have it so removing us from each other is the ultimate way to mitigate that. Another example of this would be furloughing staff where the work cannot be done from home but the workplace cannot maintain staff working at a distance if it is fully staffed. Many shops currently have signs outside asking people not to enter if they have symptoms typically associated with the coronavirus, which is a way to eliminate the risk that the symptomatic would pose both to shop staff and their fellow customers. For funeral directors, Deceased people may present a risk, depending on the circumstances. Eliminating them is not possible – and there will be numerous other examples for businesses where elimination of the risk is not possible for continuation of their trade, which is why we have a hierarchy with further methods.
Substitution, the next option, is about replacing the risk. This is not necessarily relevant to COVID, although it may prove so in future once antibody tests are widespread and it is known if having had the virus confers immunity – you could swap staff about, for example. A better example of a substitution risk would be using a non-flammable chemical instead of a chemical one. Being diligent about what products are available and what is being used by staff ensures substitutions can be made efficiently as products which present less of a risk are developed. Many suppliers will also let their customers know if a substitute becomes available for a previously high-risk but hard-to-replace product.
Engineering Controls work to isolate people from the hazard. The best current example of this is the plastic screens which most large shops have erected between their staff and customers. Engineering controls can also be used to reduce the chance of someone unnecessarily coming into contact with the risk. For example, a system of swipecards with different access levels means that a factory floor or chemical store can only be entered by those whose jobs require them to do so, and who have had the requisite training to know what else they must do to reduce the risks in this area. For funeral directors, the practice of embalming people carries a risk both from heightened infection from the Deceased person and from the chemicals used, so preventing access to the embalming theatre while this is being carried out, isolates others from this hazard.
Now is a good time to point out that mitigating one risk can cause another. If you isolate everyone apart from one person doing a job, then the risks to them of working alone will need to be assessed. This is why risk management can be complicated.
Administrative Controls are about the ways that people work and how these can be altered to reduce risks they face in their job. Many workplaces are currently being reconfigured to remove the risk that staff present to each other through being at near proximity. A lot of this will be about training. For example, lifting is a risk in many different jobs, including funeral directing, but understanding how to approach a lifting task and how to carry it out safely (for example, testing the weight before plunging straight in, taking time to clear a route or seeking help) can, in many cases, minimise a risk completely.
Finally, we come to PPE. The reason this is the least desirable way to mitigate the risk is because it shows all of the above have failed – the risk is as present as it ever was. Of course, this will be the case for many risks in many roles, and that is why employers have a duty to provide required PPE free of charge – as this is effectively the last resort it must be ensured the employee has this protection where no other is viable.
It is by moving through this hierarchy of hazard control that the appropriate level of risk management is found for each task. Let’s say a very high ceiling needs to be painted, and requires a person to work at height. The ceiling cannot be lowered so elimination of the height risk is not possible. There is also not an availability to substitute. Engineering controls are the best possibility here, by providing the painter with a spraying facility or long brushes, thus they are kept away from the height risk. It might be easier to have a team of two working together, with one holding a ladder, but this is less desirable as it is an administration control risk, lower down the hierarchy – and in this case it’s clear to see why – you still have one person working at height, whereas the preferable engineering control measure removes this altogether.
Large companies often employ people to assess risk as part of a health and safety duty. Risk assessment can be difficult, especially for people who know a job well, and it is always a risk that assuming the easiest way to mitigate a risk is the best one. It often requires the ability to be open to different ways of working. Safer ways may be slower, or – as seen above – not as easy; but not always. Importantly, assessing risk is a process of principle and training people to do this for their everyday work enables a better workplace and empowers our teams to have confidence in their workplace and its practices.
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