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      • Published 17 Jan 2023
      • Last Modified 20 Feb 2024
    • 17 min

    Assessing and Preventing Hazards in the Workplace

    Unsafe working practices and environments can create hazards that impact employers and employees. This guide provides insight into the types of workplace hazards that can occur and the legal requirements needed to ensure common hazards are prevented.

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    Types of Workplace Hazards

    The six key types of workplace hazards that can occur across a wide range of environments are listed below:

    Safety hazards are unsafe items or conditions that could lead to an accident or injury if left unattended or unimproved. They generally fall into two broad categories – unsafe equipment or tools, and unsafe practices or environments – and include things like:

    • High or unstable working platforms
    • Damaged or faulty wiring
    • Heavy items that could fall or spill
    • Tripping or slipping hazards
    • Confined spaces
    • Low visibility or air quality
    • Risky or dangerous tasks

    Physical hazards are items or conditions present that can hurt people bodily without the victim actually having to come into direct contact with them. Typical examples could be:

    • Radiation
    • Severe weather conditions
    • Prolonged exposure to sun and/or UV light
    • Extremes of temperature
    • Excessive noise

    Chemical hazards are when exposure to noxious substances in any state – solid, liquid or gas – causes illness or physical harm such as skin irritation, breathing difficulties or eye damage. Examples might be:

    • Caustic substances such as cleaning products, especially industrial
    • Paints, preservatives and other coatings
    • Acid and alkaline substances
    • Glues and solvents
    • Gasses or fumes released as a result of combustion or welding
    • Gasses or fumes released by chemical mixtures
    • Flammable or explosive compounds
    • Pesticides
    • Industrial waste or by-products

    Biological hazards are human or animal-related by-products and scenarios that can cause injury or illness if people come into direct contact with them. This could include:

    • Animal or insect bites
    • Germs and bacteria
    • Human or animal waste
    • Contagious diseases or viruses
    • Blood and other bodily fluids
    • Other infection risks
    • Mould or fungi

    Ergonomic hazards are situations that will cause physical discomfort, damage or degeneration due to body position or type of work. These hazards can often occur or impact people gradually over time, rather than in an instant, and are therefore sometimes harder to spot. Some frequent causes are:

    • Poorly set up chairs, desks and other workstations
    • Any situation that requires adopting an uncomfortable posture
    • Extended periods of standing or sitting
    • Frequent heavy lifting, or lifting with incorrect posture
    • Repetitive motions and movements
    • Excessive vibration
    • Tasks requiring significant physical force

    Organisational hazards are typically more emotionally damaging but can also have direct physical implications in either the short or long-term. Whether the impact is a cause of worker stress (i.e. short-term) or strain (long-term), they can include factors like:

    • Excessive workload demand
    • Overly intense or extended periods of pressure
    • Fear or insecurity, either physical or relating to longer-term job prospects
    • Social isolation or alienation in the workplace
    • Bullying, discrimination or harassment, including sexual
    • Lack of flexibility
    • Lack of responsibility
    • Lack of control

    Unsafe Work Practices that Create Hazards

    Working in Confined Spaces

    A confined space at work is classed as any area that’s substantially enclosed, and where there’s a risk of death or serious injury from hazardous substances or dangerous conditions (e.g. lack of oxygen). Examples are:

    • Pits
    • Trenches
    • Sewers
    • Drains
    • Chambers
    • Silos
    • Tanks
    • Vats
    • Flues
    • Ducts
    • Be aware that places can also become confined spaces during the course of work, for example on construction or repair projects

    Common problems associated with working in confined spaces are:

    • Lack of oxygen
    • Noxious or poisonous gasses and vapours
    • Risk of liquid or solid ingress
    • Risk of fire or explosion
    • Toxic or irritant residues
    • Dust
    • Heat, cramp and other causes of physical discomfort

    To reduce the risk posed by working in confined spaces, follow a three-point checklist:

    1. Is it really necessary, or is there another way around the task? This should always be the first consideration
    2. If it’s unavoidable, follow a safe system of work as designed through an appropriate hazard assessment
    3. Ensure that suitable emergency procedures are in place before work in any confined spaces begins and that someone will be on hand to assist in delivering them if an incident should occur. These include any first-aid response training and equipment likely to be required, and an agreed protocol for contacting emergency services

    Lone Workers

    Pay special attention to the vulnerabilities and risks facing any lone worker(s) on the premises or elsewhere.

    A ‘lone worker’ is defined as any employee in a situation where physical assistance would not be immediately available, which actually covers more roles and scenarios than you might think:

    • People travelling to meet clients or customers
    • People working on remote sites or in locations inaccessible to the public
    • People working in confined spaces or behind physical barriers
    • People whose jobs involve house calls
    • People isolated in vehicles or private rooms
    • People delivering goods, especially cash or high-cash-value items

    Any lone worker is automatically in a more hazardous situation than non-lone workers, because:

    • There's a much greater chance that they won’t see potential or incoming danger
    • If they’re injured, they may not be able to get to safety or raise an alarm
    • If they become ill or incapacitated, they may not have access to first-aid
    • They may not be able to contact anybody for advice in dangerous or stressful situations
    • They’re at much greater risk of suffering attacks, violence, and verbal or physical threats in the course of their work
    • They’re at greater risk from equipment or vehicle damage and breakdown

    The best ways to keep lone workers safe are based on continual assessment and monitoring with the input of the employee in question. They will typically include:

    • A full potential hazard assessment
    • Comprehensive and regularly refreshed training
    • Frequent equipment checks
    • Establishing secure premises where possible
    • Agreed contact procedures
    • Regular supervisor visits and inspections
    • Automatic warning devices where appropriate
    • Impressing upon the lone worker that they also have duties and responsibilities for their own wellbeing, and for contact/cooperation with other employees

    How to Report Hazards (The Legal Requirements)


    Everybody who uses a workplace shares responsibility for ensuring the safety, good health and well-being of everyone else in it. It’s important that this is well-known and understood by all workers and supervising staff.

    A key part of promoting better workplace safety is the prompt and accurate reporting of incidents, including potential hazards and close calls. Note that not all hazards pose an immediate danger, but many will become dangerous over time if left unresolved.

    All employees must be trained to report hazards, both immediate and potential, as soon as they’re identified. They can be reported either to a supervisor, an employer or a health and safety representative.

    Employees should know the precise protocol and relevant personnel for reporting hazards, incidents and observations at all times.


    Employers have a duty to respond promptly and practically to any hazards or incidents reported. The first step in fulfilling this duty should be to stop or relocate work until all sources of avoidable risk to the health and/or physical well-being of staff have been removed or addressed.

    Employers must take all reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of employees at the workplace or working remotely. Some of their more general duties include:

    • Complying with, and ensuring that workers comply with, health and safety legislation
    • Posting a copy of any relevant legislation clearly and visibly in the workplace
    • Preparing a written occupational health and safety policy, reviewing it annually, and distributing it to workers
    • Providing adequate safety instruction and job training
    • Ensuring that workers have the necessary equipment, and especially protective wear, to do their jobs safely
    • Providing reliable, suitable quality equipment, and taking overall responsibility for its ongoing maintenance
    • Providing training and continuing to ensure that workers are using all equipment and protective devices properly
    • Ensuring workers are not exposed to avoidable health and safety hazards
    • Informing workers of any potential or actual health and safety hazards that are already known about
    • Keeping and maintaining accurate records of the handling, storage, use, and disposal of biological, chemical or physical agents
    • Following proper procedures in the event of injury or illness
    • Investigating all incidents promptly and reporting any incidents, without delay, to the proper authorities
    • Appointing competent supervisors
    • Providing health and safety representatives with the results of any hazard assessments and reports, as well as advising workers of these results

    The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is the UK government body responsible for enforcing health and safety at work legislation. This is based on two key pieces of law – the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSAW), and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

    Key provisions of the HSAW for employers include:

    • Ensuring safe operation and maintenance of the working environment, plant and systems
    • Overseeing the maintenance of safe access and egress to the workplace
    • Supervising safe use, handling and storage of dangerous substances
    • Providing adequate training of staff to ensure health and safety
    • Providing adequate welfare provisions for staff at work
    • For workforces of five or more people, keeping and revising a written record of health and safety policy, and consulting with employees or their representatives on such policies

    Employers should also be aware of the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995, also known as RIDDOR.

    They require employers, the self-employed and people in control of premises, to report work-related deaths, major injuries, work-related diseases and dangerous occurrences. Incidents can be reported:

    • To the Incident Contact Centre by telephone on 0845 300 9923
    • Online via the HSE's RIDDOR report webpages

    How to Prevent Common Hazards

    Poor Practice

    Generally speaking, the vast majority of injuries, accidents and incidents that occur in the workplace are completely avoidable. They usually happen because of malpractice, ignorance or negligence.

    A few common examples of unsafe work practices seen on many premises and in many types of roles are:

    • Using machinery or tools without authority or proper training
    • Operating at unsafe speeds
    • Removing or disabling safety rails, protective guards or other safety devices
    • Using defective or damaged tools and equipment, or failing to read and understand guidelines
    • Overloading, overcrowding, or failing to balance heavy or bulky materials
    • Improper lifting techniques
    • Repairing or adjusting equipment that is in motion, under pressure, or electrically charged
    • Failing to use and/or maintain personal protective equipment (PPE)
    • Creating unsafe, unsanitary or unhealthy conditions through poor personal hygiene, organisation, maintenance or tidiness
    • Standing or working under suspended loads and scaffolds, or over shafts and open hatches

    Risk and Hazard Assessments

    By far the best way to help prevent common workplace hazards is to carry out a comprehensive hazard assessment on the premises. See our links at the end of this guide for examples and resources.

    The type of risk assessment carried out, and what it covers, will depend on the nature of the organisation and the work done on the premises. However, they must always consider everyone who uses the site, and who could be affected by the outcomes.

    The aim should always be to reduce the risks as much as is 'reasonably practicable'. 'Reasonably practicable' is a legal term that means employers must balance the cost of steps that they could take to reduce a risk against the degree of risk presented.

    When carrying out a hazard or risk assessment, safety hazards are usually the most obvious ones to look out for. They’re generally easily detectable by asking yourself some simple questions, such as:

    • How likely is an accident, injury or illness to occur here if a hazardous situation did arise, and how serious might it be for the staff involved?
    • Are the employees working with any dangerous equipment, tools, or materials?
    • Does any aspect of the work area or building layout pose a direct risk to staff? (Be mindful of potential blind spots, poor lighting or low visibility areas.)
    • Do any aspects of the building or site’s condition pose a risk?
    • Is there an obvious risk of falling, slipping or tripping in any particular area?
    • Are all walkways and road areas stable, level, and free of unnecessary obstructions?
    • Have there been accidents or incidents on these premises or among this workforce before – and if so, how were they caused, and what action was taken subsequently?

    After a hazard assessment has been carried out, it’s vital to act on any areas that pose an obvious potential risk. There are two main areas to focus on:

    Engineering measures – i.e. physical alterations and improvements to the building, environment or equipment being used. Good examples of engineering controls for hazard mitigation are:

    • Enhanced protective or safety wear
    • Replacement of old or worn tools
    • Installation of new safety monitoring/response systems

    Administrative measures – i.e. organisational improvements and updates that either reduce the risk of a problem occurring in the first place or increase workers’ ability to respond quickly and efficiently in the event of an incident. Administrative controls for hazard mitigation might include:

    • Improved shift rotation patterns
    • Better production line scheduling
    • Better systems for reporting risks or concerns
    • Increased frequency of team meetings to discuss or train on safety protocols

    Create a Workplace Safety Culture

    It’s vitally important that safety be adopted as a culture throughout the workplace. In other words, it needs to be at the forefront of what your employees do and how they do it.

    • Make it integral; a key part of your approach to the whole workplace environment
    • Encouraging a sense of shared responsibility for safety and hazard mitigation is key. For any sort of safety plan to be effective, it needs to feel as though everyone is looking out for everyone
    • If it seems like just another thing that’s mandated from the top down, it won’t stick

    Important steps to achieving this are:

    • To regularly assess and overhaul safety protocols
    • To review accident and incident reports carefully
    • To liaise with employees frequently for updated safety advice, reminders and refresher courses, training sessions and open discussions
    • To make clear to employees that safety is non-optional, but a shared responsibility – theirs for helping one another stay safe, and yours for their safety collectively
    • To make clear to every employee what protections and protocols are in place
    • To make clear to every employee what they can and should do in any scenario where they feel at risk
    • To make clear to every employee what they can and should do in the event of an incident

    Employers must also be aware of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which cover all aspects of the working environment and employers’ duty to maintain them, including:

    • Equipment, devices and systems
    • Ventilation
    • The temperature in indoor workplaces
    • Lighting
    • Cleanliness and waste materials
    • Workstations and seating
    • Condition of floors and traffic routes
    • Falls or falling objects
    • Windows and transparent or translucent doors, gates and walls
    • The organisation of traffic routes
    • Doors and gates
    • Escalators and moving walkways
    • Sanitary conveniences
    • Washing facilities
    • Drinking water

    When putting together a risk or hazard assessment, consider risks beyond physical injury that may not be as immediately obvious at first glance. These could include risks to hearing, risks to medical health, risks to muscles and joints, and risks to mental health or well-being.

    If you’re in an environment where hazardous substances are a factor, a regular programme of health surveillance – including frequent hearing tests, eye tests, employee skin checks on hands, or asking staff to fill in respiratory health questionnaires periodically – can be a good move.

    Controlling Hazardous Substances

    The Basics

    Solids, liquids, gases, mists and fumes are all common forms that hazardous substances can take when present in the workplace.

    Legally speaking, hazardous substances are defined in a few different ways. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) classifies them as substances that are any of the following:

    • Toxic
    • Very toxic
    • Corrosive
    • Harmful
    • Irritant
    • Biological agents and dust in substantial concentrations

    Just as there are numerous types of hazardous substances, there are many different sorts of effects they can have on exposed workers. Typical examples can have short- or long-term effects, and might include:

    • Burns and inflammation
    • Breathing difficulties
    • Allergies
    • Eye irritation, damage or blindness
    • Mild or serious illnesses such as dermatitis, asthma or cancers

    The list of workers who might commonly be exposed to potentially hazardous substances is long and includes the likes of:

    • Cleaners
    • Garage attendants
    • Metalworkers and welders
    • Factory employees and production line workers
    • Hairdressers
    • Gardeners
    • Construction site workers
    • Builders and decorators
    • Bakers
    • Nurses and healthcare workers

    Skin and Respiratory Sensitisers

    These are among the most common effects of exposure to hazardous substances at work. There is a wide range of substances frequently encountered in many jobs that can cause allergies when inhaled, or damage tissue when in contact with skin.

    Damage caused by skin and respiratory sensitisers can be mild or severe, short-term or permanent.

    Once the damage has been suffered, repeat exposure to even tiny amounts of the substance in future can cause severe allergic reactions.

    Typical culprits might include:

    • Isocyanates (e.g. spray paints)
    • Wood dust
    • Flour and grain dust
    • Solder flux
    • Laboratory animals
    • Glues and resins
    • Glutaraldehyde (Cidex)
    • Chemicals used in hairdressing

    Steps to Reduce Risks to Skin

    1. Assess whether there are any substances used, produced or created in your workplace that can cause dermatitis or other skin damage/irritation
    2. Understand who is exposed, for how long, and what safety equipment they should be using
    3. Do not allow workers’ hands to be used as tools (i.e. in direct contact with hazardous substances)
    4. Substitute a hazardous substance, material or product with a safer alternative wherever possible
    5. Provide all suitable protective gear, and ensure that it fits properly and is being used appropriately
    6. Provide washing stations and skin cleansers in the work area
    7. Ensure extraction and disposal systems are designed professionally, used correctly, and regularly checked and maintained as recommended in the manual

    Steps to Reduce Risk to Breathing

    1. Always provide employees exposed to potential respiratory irritants with an appropriate respirator or piece of breathing apparatus (RPE)
    2. Ensure training is given in the correct fitting, use and maintenance of RPEs
    3. Remember that RPEs are only to be used as the last option after you’ve taken every other reasonable step to control the employees’ level of exposure, and improve air quality and ventilation in your work areas
    4. Know the different scenarios for use of respirators and breathing aids with different fittings – including masks, hoods, visors and blouses
    5. Remember that any RPE can only protect the person wearing it: there may still be a risk to others in the area
    6. Safely dispose of any used or damaged RPEs and their component parts, taking the health and safety of waste handlers and any relevant waste regulations into account
    7. Ensure that any RPE fit testing is conducted by a competent person – take steps to ensure that any person you engage as a fit tester is appropriately trained, qualified and experienced

    Establish a Wider Programme for Reducing Risk

    Any effective programme for controlling hazardous substances will include most or all of the following elements:

    • Developing a written policy to show commitment and assign responsibility at every level
    • Identifying and evaluating all hazardous substances in the workplace
    • Labelling all hazardous substances and providing up-to-date Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for them
    • Implementing safe work procedures and appropriate administrative and engineering controls
    • Educating workers about labels, MSDS, safe handling, storage, disposal and emergency response
    • Identifying required personal protective equipment and educating workers on its care and use
    • Promoting the purchase of the safest substances possible
    • Identifying the qualified persons responsible for carrying out the programme