A risk can be defined as the likelihood that someone will be harmed from a hazard being realised. In this context, a hazard is anything with the potential to cause harm. Examples in the laboratory environment include but are not limited to chemicals, electricity, equipment and method of work. A risk assessment is simply a careful examination of a process or procedure to determine what could potentially cause harm to people taking into account existing precautions and their effectiveness. Risk assessments help reduce the number of accidents at work and have the potential to help reduce the cost of service provision by reducing lost time due to injury and reducing potential litigation costs. In the laboratory, all processes, procedures and equipment must have a risk assessment before being put into use. All chemicals must have (control of substances hazardous to health) COSHH risk assessments. CPA also requires that the laboratory hold up to date materials and safety data sheets (MSDS) for all reagents used in the laboratory.
According to the UK Health and Safety Executive, a risk assessment must at a minimum include these five steps:
- Assessment of the task, activity or situation to identify the nature of the hazards
- Decide who might be harmed
- Evaluate the risks
- Record the findings
- Review the risk assessment and identify ways to reduce the risks
Assessment of hazards can be carried out simply by observing a task or walking round the laboratory looking at what would reasonably cause harm. Examples include access to the laboratory not being secure, overloaded shelves or shelves that are too high, chemicals not properly stored, use of sharps and glass and equipment not tested for electrical safety. It might also include lack of training in manual handling or staff using chemicals and reagents for which they have not received training. People who might be harmed include staff as well as visitors, contractors, agency workers and cleaners in the laboratory. Young people in the laboratory, new and expectant mothers, trainees and night and lone workers may be at increased risk.
The risks can be evaluated using a risk matrix. This is typically a matrix of the likelihood of a hazard being realised measured as increasing likelihood from 1 to 5 versus the impact of the hazard should it be realised also measured in increasing impact from 1 to 5. The risk of a process or procedure is then the product of the likelihood and the impact. Such a scheme could consider risks with scores of 6 and below to be Low, 7 to 12 to be Intermediate and above 12 to be High, requiring elimination if possible, if not then reduction of risk.
Risk can be reduced by restricting the activity to a few trained staff and to defined areas of the laboratory and establishing safe storage and disposal processes for reagents, chemicals and clinical waste. Using appropriate personal protective equipment (gloves, goggles, appropriate clothing etc).
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