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Risk assessment in the Physics laboratory

Risk assessments are an attempt to safeguard yourself, your students and the apparatus in any physics experiment. In the assessment of risk in any experiment you should:
(a) try and assess what might reasonably go wrong
(b) how likely it is to go wrong
(b) what the effects would be on teacher, student and equipment if the problem actually occurred

A risk assessment is an important part of your practical lesson and a formal record should always be kept (see risk assessment form).

Having said this one important word in (a) is reasonable. Many experiments can be carried out with virtually no risk and many others the risk of the problem occurring is so low that the risk becomes acceptable. We should not severely limit our practical work. However any experiment which could cause serious injury to staff or students should never be carried out in a school.

Indentify the hazards in an experiment

The first thing to do is to try and identify the particular hazards in the experiment. These might be electrical, radioactivity, temperature (burns and scalds), high pressure with a chance of an explosion, chemical, light (Sun, UV, laser)

There are then simple physical hazards around a lab these are usually things that you can trip over. For this reason always store bags and briefcases under the bench and avoid having electrical leads trailing from one bench to another across an open space. If possible do not store heavy or expensive equipment in high cupboards where it could fall out, hit somebody and break.

Be sure that you understand any risks with the use of chemicals in a Physics laboratory. If in doubt consult your colleagues in the Chemistry department for advice on use, storage and treatment in the case of spillage or contact with the body especially the eyes.

Assessment of risk

Having identified the possible risks in an experiment you should then think about the worst possible situation and look at it from two points of view:
(a) the possible effect
(b) the chances of it happening
In the two following lists the effects and chances of occurrence have been graded 4 to 1 with 4 being the greatest risk and greatest chance of occurrence

Possible effect

4. Death or permanent disability
3. Long-term illness or serious injury
2. Medical attention and several days off work
1. First aid required

Chances of it happening

4. Very likely
3. Likely
2. Unlikely
1. Very unlikely


Having looked at the risk and possible consequences you should try to control the experiment to see if you can minimize these.
(a) can you eliminate the risk?
(b) if the risks are significant, is there another way to carry out the experiment or can you substitute an alternative experiment?
(c) can you reduce the risk?

Record keeping

Make three copies of your assessment.
1. Keep one in the laboratory.
2. File one in the departmental Handbook
3. Give on to the school's safety officer

Forms for risk assessment may be found in the 14-16 lesson plans section of the schoolphysics CD. (See: Risk assessment form)

A quote from a high ranking safety officer:
"We should stop wasting time with trivia and concentrate on real risks that are likely to cause real harm"

© Keith Gibbs 2020