Danger Signs: the secret sauce of risk assessment

Next level Risk Assessments

We all know Risk Assessments, right?  Bits of paper that are filled in in a pro-forma way, then filed and never consulted again.

I’ve recently come to the radical conclusion that perhaps these things should actually do something.  Maybe that will go some way to fixing the problem that accidents in academia are 20-50 times as likely as in industry.

Risk Assessment Briefing

If Risk Assessments are to have any effect, they need to command that crucial minimum 5% of attention.  That means a briefing. Here’s the essence of what I always say:

Just about everywhere I have been RAs are pro-forma paper that get filled in and are forgotten thirty seconds later.  Not here.  Here these things serve a purpose – your purpose.

They are a kind of open-book exam.  They are there to put safety in your mind, to make you aware of what can go wrong, and how to prevent it.  If you can think through each step of the experiment you will do, you will be much more likely to carry it out correctly, and to keep yourself safe while doing so.  That is why I will check your RAs in detail.

Essential points to include in an RA

Most RAs cover the same ground – this chemical has that hazard code etc.  Fair enough, you can’t do without them.  However, what you should insist that all risk assessments include are the following:

  1. Danger Signs.  Money quote from an explosion accident involving potassium nitrate: “Oh, it sparked before now but that’s the first time it’s exploded”.  I’ve added a requirement to list possible danger signs in procedure, as well as ways of quenching and safe shut down.
  2. Mixing dangers.  Knowing possible chemical incompatibilities is an essential element in avoiding explosions.
  3. Expanded hazard definition.  Don’t restrict yourself to hazard codes – have separate sections for Corrosivity data, Thermal Stability etc.  
  4. Inclusion of a block flow diagram for processes to be carried out
  5. Listing of safe upper and lower limits for each stage (e.g., pressure, temperature etc.)

This steps can upgrade your laboratory safety quite significantly.  However, none of them will do anything unless you check them.  It’s easy to just sign off on these, but each and every one should be carefully read when it crosses your desk.  After all, it’s your ass on the line in the long run.

 

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