Labs can be dangerous places. Even the most careful workers can have accidents. To help prevent workplace accidents, you should conduct a yearly Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment, otherwise known as HIRA.

Here are six steps to guide you through how to conduct a HIRA assessment.

Step 1: Preparation

Before you even begin, put together a risk assessment team to conduct surveys and gather relevant information. They represent the people in the lab and make informed decisions about the overall safety of the lab. They also provide a valuable avenue for feedback because the worries and concerns of the lab personnel are highlighted. This makes it easier to ensure their safety once a problem has been identified.

The risk assessment team will:

  • tour the lab with their eyes peeled for potential hazards
  • assess how well safety precautions are followed (usually documented by taking notes and photos)
  • make sure the safety equipment is in its proper place.
  • have regular meetings to evaluate safety plans in the lab
  • organize safety training sessions
  • maintain training records
  • ensure everyone has access to all safety protocols and chemical

They are also entrusted with the traumatizing task of making a detailed list of accidents that happened within the past year.

Something bothering you in the lab? A piece of equipment look suspiciously broken, but you aren’t sure? Talk to a member of the risk assessment team. They’re always more than happy to talk to you about your safety concerns in the lab (they can’t help you in the kitchen, though).

Step 2: Hazard Identification

Identify hazards or potential incidents. There a thousand things that could go wrong in the lab—you just have to list them all out in advance (do note that paper cuts are not counted as actual hazards). Take the information gathered by the risk assessment team and list out all the known hazards in the lab. These can be further separated by type into biological, chemical, physical, ergonomic, and psychosocial.

Step 3: Risk Assessment

Deduce the risk level of each of the hazards you’ve listed and prioritize them according to which is more serious and more likely to happen.

You can use a table known as a risk matrix to help determine the risk level. A risk matrix provides a quick view of both the likelihood and the severity of the consequences. Both factors are given a rating from 1–5 and the subsequent result places the risk in one of these categories: Extreme, High Risk, Medium, Low Risk.

Consider those that fall under ‘extreme’ as high priority, and make plans to have the risk eliminated completely. In contrast, ‘low risk’ poses no significant problem, but you can take action through administrative measures to create a more optimal workflow or working environment.

Step 4: Plan Control Measures

Now that you’ve identified the risks and the likelihood of each hazard occurring, set control measures to prevent, or at least reduce, the chance of an accident taking place in the lab. There are five control measure categories: elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls, and PPE (in decreasing order of effectiveness).

For example:

Elimination control. When the risk is extremely high, completely remove the hazard from the lab.

Substitution control. Find a safer alternative to the hazardous chemical/material/equipment that you have.

Engineering controls. A good example would be a biological safety cabinet, which is an enclosed ventilated laboratory workspace designed to protect the user from being exposed to pathogens

Administrative controls. Your lab access card is keeping you and others safe by not letting unauthorized people into your potentially hazardous work area (especially since they wouldn’t have had any safety training)

PPE. Your standard lab coat, gloves and goggles.

Step 5: Record Keeping

Always keep records of all risk assessment reports (right from step 1) and update records when new information is available. Documentation can also include: photographs of bad safety practices, lab accident sites, feedback from staff, and a record of the safety clearances obtained and safety trainings attended by lab members.

Step 6: Implementation and Review

Now that you have completed all the stages, it’s time to put them into action!

Note that all new preventative measures should be implemented only once the risk assessment team obtains approval from the principal investigator or lab manager. Conduct a meeting a month or two after implementing the new safety measures to review their efficiency.  Also, get regular feedback from lab staff to keep all safety measures relevant.

I admit, there’s a lot of paperwork when conducting a HIRA assessment, but it’s better to drown in paperwork than for one of your team members to be hurt—or worse—in an unfortunate lab accident.

For more info on HIRA and risk assessments, check out the links below: