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Oxford University Press - Online Resource Centres

Holmes et al: Research Methods for the Biosciences 3e

Risk assessment form


You must work in such a way that your safety and that of others is paramount. To do this you need to identify the hazards of each step of your research protocol and then incorporate practices that minimize the risk to health.

Health and safety is something that is usually considered in laboratory work where chemicals or microorganisms are being handled. However, health and safety must be considered in all types of research from carrying out a questionnaire survey to sampling soil in the field. The method for considering health and safety is a risk assessment. To help you, you should either refer to the risk assessment or COSHH forms provided by your Institution or you may use the one provided here.  

We have divided our risk assessment into seven steps:

  • Hazard identification and rating. What hazards may be present if you carry out your research as you have designed it? In what way may these hazards affect your own or other people's health?
  • Activity. How might you become exposed to the hazard and what is the possible scale of exposure?
  • Probability of harm. Given the nature of the hazard, the possible effect on health and the possible scale of exposure what is the probability of harm?
  • Minimize the risk. Decide what precautions are needed to control or reduce this risk.
  • Risk evaluation. Is this an acceptable level of risk?
  • Emergencies. Be aware of, or prepare procedures to deal with accidents and emergencies.
  • Action. Ensure these precautions are in place and followed.

Although every effort has been made to ensure that this information is accurate, it should not be taken as a definitive statement of the law, nor can responsibility be accepted for any errors or omissions.

Risk assessment form template

Example of a completed risk assessment form

Outline of the practical work

First you need to provide a detailed description of the practical work that is being planned including location and method.

1. Hazard identification and rating

In this first step you need to identify all the potential hazards and the nature of the hazard that you or others may encounter as a result of the work you are planning (4.4.1.). A hazard is anything with the potential to cause harm. In most student research the hazards will fall into three broad categories: hazards relating to the environment in which the work will be carried out (4.4.1.i), chemicals (4.4.1.ii) and biological agents (4.4.1.iii).  All the hazards need to be listed in the first column of the table in this section.

Having identified the hazards you then need to add to each (column two) the nature of the hazard.  For example your may drown if working in a river or stream or you may burn yourself if working with a lit Bunsen burner.  You should ignore any control or safely measures at this stage.   

For some hazards there are recognized symbols or statements relating to the nature of the hazard.  For example 'caustic' is the chemical burning that occurs on exposed surfaces such as skin, eyes, or internal organs if they become exposed to the substance. The hazard is therefore potentially damaging if you eat/drink it or allow your skin or eyes to come into contact with it. The symbols and statements about the nature of hazards are currently being revised and details can be found on the Health and Safety Executive web pages

You should use the standard risk and hazard statements and when introduced the hazard statements, precautionary statements and signal words.  For example at present risk phrases include R1: explosive when dry and R22: harmful if swallowed.  If you use abbreviations such as R1 or R22 in your risk assessment then you should explain what each code means at least once in the table.

Having identified all the hazards that you may encounter in your work, you need to rate them. The institution you are affiliated with should give guidance on this. In general, however, a major hazard would be one that may cause death or serious injury; a serious hazard may cause injuries or illness resulting in short-term disability; and a slight hazard may cause less significant injuries or illnesses.

2. Grade the possible scale of exposure

The way in which you encounter each hazard will determine the probable extent to which you may become exposed to the hazard (4.4.2.). Some substances you handle may be in a powdered form and so you may risk exposure through inhalation. Some substances can penetrate the skin and others damage the skin.  Activities may in their own right be potentially hazardous and these need to be recognized as part of your evaluation of health and safety. Examples include where you or others need to move equipment, to sit or stand in awkward or cramped conditions, or make repetitive movements.

Grade the possible exposure of yourself or others to each hazard using the scale high, medium or low.  Remember to take into account all stages of your work including ordering materials, storing them and disposal.

3. Assess the probability of harm (risk)

You can now assess the probability of harm (risk) to yourself and others as result of the work you may carry out. The risk is the likelihood that someone will be harmed by the hazard and the severity of the harm caused.  A high risk is one where harm is very likely to occur and where the hazard may cause death or serious injury/illness.  A low risk is where the risk is small and/or the hazard would cause a short term and not significant injury or illness. A medium risk is in between these two.

This, the risk assessment step, is not easy and is usually subjective and qualitative. Most institutions provide guidelines to help you. For supplied substances the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has developed a generic web-based guide to risk assessment called COSHH Essentials which can be found through the HSE website.

You will usually either write a generic risk assessment or one focused on yourself. However when preparing a risk assessment you do need to consider other people?s health conditions and needs and where these is a significantly increased risk for a specific group of individuals such as a pregnant women this should be noted in your risk assessment.

Some substances have workplace exposure limits (Workplace Exposure Limits) which you need to be aware of.  For example, in the use of and exposure to radioactive substances.

4. What precautions are needed to control or reduce this risk

For each hazard and/or activity, indicate the control measures you intend to put in place to reduce the probability of harm to yourself and others (4.4.4.).  In some cases you may with careful planning remove the risk by altering your method or, more commonly, you will be able to reduce the risk.

There are currently recognized safety codes (which will become ?precautionary statements?) that indicate suitable precautions. In general these relate to the use of chemicals. You may use these codes but must explain in full at least once in this table what each safety code means. Similarly COSHH Essentials provides invaluable information.

You now make a second assessment of the probability of harm for each hazard assuming that the control measures are in place and effective.

5. Risk assessment

Using these two sets of risk evalua­tions (with and without controls in place) you are now in a position to determine if the level of risk is acceptable. We cannot provide detailed guidance on this as there are so many differing potential hazards. You must therefore seek specific guidance from your supervisor. However, in general undergraduate work will normally be allowed to continue if the risk, with the con­trols in place, is low and occasionally moderate and where the con­trols are not likely to fail and where if they did the risk was no more than moderate. Graduates may be allowed to accept a higher risk, but in our experience a severe risk of injury to health is not usually deemed acceptable for any student.

6. Emergency protocols

There are two types of emergencies that you need to consider before you may finally complete this part of your research preparation. The first point you need to consider is what to do if one or more of your measures introduced to control the hazards fail. The second is what to do if there is a fire or other external emergency that means you must leave your research immediately.

You must consider here both in what ways these protective measures may fail and what needs to be done in response. For example, if a laminar flow hood fails you are more likely to become contaminated with the micro­organisms you are handling. In preparation for such events as a fire alarm sounding you should discuss with your supervisor and technical staff what needs to be done to ensure the hazard(s) in your work continue to be contained and other hazards do not arise.  This information needs to be recorded as part of your risk assessment.

7. Action

Having carried out your risk assessment and determined that the risk is acceptable you can then carry out the research. However, you will need to:

  • ensure that the precautions to control the hazard(s) are in place, are followed and that they are effective
  • ensure that your risk and emergency planning information is with you when you are working and others in the vicinity are aware of this
  • contact medical assistance immediately if you start to feel unwell, and take your risk assessment details with you.