The problem with the HSE 5 Steps to Risk Assessment and how to improve hazard recognition by 31%

by | Feb 4, 2017 | Risk Management

You may be missing as much as 50% of hazards if you rely on simple risk assessment methods such as the HSE 5 steps to risk assessment. If you want to avoid potential problems that can arise when using the five steps of risk assessment and successfully identify over 30% more hazards, keep reading.

At the end of the post, you will find FREE, print-ready pocket card that can help your workers identify more hazards and reduce the chances of an accident.

What is the purpose of risk assessment?

Nearly 50% of all accidents involve poor risk assessment, which is due to the inability to correctly identify the hazards that harm workers [1].

If workers don’t recognise the conditions that can injure them, they are unable to behave safely.


Risk assessment methods

A very popular risk assessment framework is the “HSE 5 steps to risk assessment”.

Step 1: Identify anything that may cause harm (hazards).

Studies show that identifying hazards is subjective. Some people can identify more hazards than others: what one person views as high risk, another may view as a lower risk.

Don’t believe me? Look at the pictures below. Do you see any problems there? Clearly, those people saw nothing wrong with what they were doing.

What do you think would happen if these guys did a risk assessment? Would they identify the hazards?

Researchers from the Edith Cowan University in Australia [2] analyzed how miners identify hazards. The scientists showed pictures to the workers, which depicted their daily activities.

Each picture showed 10 different hazards that were categorised under 4 types:

  • Obvious, e.g. unguarded machinery
  • Trivial, e.g. screwdriver on the floor
  • Emerging, e.g. loose rung on a ladder that may soon fall off
  • Hidden, e.g. unexpected ground movements

Please note! Most risk assessment methods focus on obvious and trivial hazards.

The researchers asked workers to identify as many hazards as they could find in the pictures, and the results were fascinating.

Those that were best at hazard recognition were workers with 6-10 years of experience. On average, they identified 5 out of 10 hazards.

But, here’s the interesting thing…

The most experienced workers, with more than 11 years of tenure, identified on average only 4 out 10 hazards.

Let’s stop and think about that for a second, shall we…

This means, that:

  • those who were “the best” at hazard identification, missed half of the existing hazards.
  • the ability to recognise hazards did not improve with age and experience!

Let that marinate for a bit.

Step 2: Decide who may be harmed, and how

Identifying who can be harmed has the same challenges as the possible source of harm.

Identifying people not involved in the job is much more difficult; visitors, office workers, other workers who perform quick jobs in the vicinity, or inspectors who happen to be in the area only on this particular day.

Step 3: Assess how likely it is that each hazard could cause harm (risk)

Assessing how likely something is going to happen is even more difficult than identifying all potential sources of harm.

For example, researchers from the University of North Carolina in the USA [3], showed that workers make the judgement about the likelihood of getting harmed based on their personal experience.

In other words, if workers were injured in the past, they feel that that they are more likely to be harmed again. On the other hand, those who did not have a bad experience with the particular job, will say that they are less likely to be harmed.

Step 4: Make a record of the findings

Step 5: Review the risk assessment.


How to identify over 30% more hazards?

Researchers and safety professionals from the University of Colorado at Boulder in the USA [4] developed and tested a new risk assessment model that improved hazard recognition by 31%.

All accidents are caused by specific energy sources, e.g. Electrical, Mechanical, Temperature etc.

Researchers gave workers pocket cards with the list of the energy sources and relevant examples.

1.       Gravity – e.g. falling objects, collapsing roof, trips and falls

2.       Motion – e.g. vehicle movement, flowing water, wind, lifting, or bending

3.       Mechanical – e.g. rotating equipment, conveyors, motors

4.       Electrical – e.g. power line, transformers, static charge, lighting

5.       Pressure – e.g. compressed gas, vessels, tanks, hoses

6.       Temperature – e.g. open flame, hot or cold surface, liquids or gases, steam

7.       Chemical – e.g. vapours, toxic compounds, fumes, dust

8.       Biological – e.g. animals, bacteria, viruses, insects, contaminated water or food

9.       Radiation – e.g. welding arc, x-rays, microwaves

10.     Sound – e.g. equipment noise, vibration, high-pressure relief

These pocket cards were used by the workers as mnemonics.

Mnemonic is a memory technique to help your brain better recall important information.

Mnemonics are essential, as it’s much easier to recall information if prompted by a keyword.

Steps to identify more hazards:

Workers were asked to follow this process:

  1. Break the job into steps.
  2. Go through each step.
  3. Use the “Energy Sources” checklist to think through what can hurt you.

*IMPORTANT! Think about:

  • Emerging hazards – something that may emerge or worsen over time (e.g. a loose step in a ladder may get disconnected through vibrations)
  • Hidden hazards – hazards which are not visible to the naked eye (e.g. ground movement, lack of competency for technical tasks, no supervision available etc.)
  • Workers from other teams working within a certain proximity
  • Non-workers who can be hurt

We prepared FREE, print-ready pocket card that you can start using with your workers straight away. It not only includes the energy sources with examples but also a reminder of different types of hazards.

You can download the Energy Sources Pocket Card for Risk Assessment and Hazard Identification


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Energy Sources Pocket Card for Risk Assessment and Hazard Identification

Energy Sources Pocket Card for Risk Assessment and Hazard Identification

Click left on the graphic to download a PDF file with different versions of this Pocket Card.

Click right on the graphic and choose SAVE AS to save the JPG version of this Pocket Card.












To summarise:

  1. Identifying hazards is subjective.
  2. Even the most experienced workers fail to recognise all hazards.
  3. Workers can be taught how to identify more hazards using simple psychological techniques like those described above.


  1. R. A. Haslam, S. A. Hide, A. G. F. Gibb, D. E. Gyi, T. Pavitt, S. Atkinson, and A. R. Duff, “Contributing factors in construction accidents,” Appl. Ergon., vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 401–415, 2005.
  2. S. Bahn, “Workplace hazard identification and management: The case of an underground mining operation,” 2013.
  3. N. T. Brewer, G. B. Chapman, F. X. Gibbons, M. Gerrard, K. D. McCaul, and N. D. Weinstein, “Meta-analysis of the relationship between risk perception and health behavior: The example of vaccination.,” Heal. Psychol., vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 136–145, Mar. 2007.
  4. A. Albert, M. R. Hallowell, and B. M. Kleiner, “Enhancing Construction Hazard Recognition and Communication with Energy-Based Cognitive Mnemonics and Safety Meeting Maturity Model: Multiple Baseline Study,” J. Constr. Eng. Manag., vol. 140, no. 2, p. 4013042, Feb. 2014.

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