Stanford University

Risk Assessment

Evaluation and assessment of risk is an integral step in designing an experimental protocol. Not only does a thorough risk assessment allow researchers to systematically identify and control hazards, but also improves science through better planning and understanding of the research question and variables.

The Stanford Laboratory Risk Assessment Tool provides a framework for risk assessment that maps onto the scientific method, melding with the process researchers already use to answer scientific questions.

Stanford Laboratory Risk Assessment Tool

Contact EH&S at 650-723-0448 with any questions or to request support in conducting a risk assessment.

What are the steps for risk assessment?

The Risk Assessment Tool uses a four-part framework that can be used for an experiment, analytical process, or series of tasks:

  • Explore – Determine the scope of your work, beginning with your research objective. What scientific question(s) are you trying to answer or problem(s) are you trying to solve? Conduct a broad review of the literature. Consider querying other disciplines. Talk with others who have done similar work.
  • Plan – Outline your procedure/tasks. This may include a deeper dive into specific topics in the literature. Determine hazards associated with each step/task and the control measures for reducing risk. EH&S can help with more detailed guidance on how to control certain hazards.
  • Challenge – What assumptions did you use? Question the importance of each step. Seek advice from others to challenge your thinking. Ask yourself “what could go wrong?” Assign a risk rating (revising steps or controls particularly if risk category is “high” or “unacceptable”). EH&S can provide experimental design review to help with this process.
  • Assess – Implement a model, prototype, or trial run. Can you perform a dry run to familiarize yourself with equipment and procedures? Can you test your experimental design at a smaller scale or with a less hazardous material? Determine if any design changes are needed. Run your experiment and monitor how your controls perform. Assess as you go and make changes as necessary.

Who should do Risk Assessments?

All researchers should conduct a risk assessment prior to conducting an experiment for the first time. When repeating an experiment/process, researchers may refer to a previous risk assessment and update the “Assess” section with the findings.

The risk assessment process involves rating the risk of the experiment, from low to unacceptable risk. Consult with your PI/supervisor and EH&S if your risk rating is “high” or “unacceptable” to redesign the experiment and/or implement additional controls to reduce risk.

What is the PI/Supervisor’s role?

PIs and Lab Supervisors should review risk assessments conducted by lab personnel/researchers. When personnel identify a “high” or “unacceptable” risk, PIs must work with them to redesign experiments or implement controls to reduce risk. If the risk rating remains “high” or “unacceptable” after redesign, consult EH&S to provide guidance to control hazards.

In addition to review of risk assessments, PIs are also encouraged to use the risk assessment framework during group meetings to discuss planned or completed experiments.

When is a Risk Assessment used versus a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)?

Risk Assessments and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are complementary tools. An SOP is typically written for repeated operations, equipment use, or required maintenance. SOPs may also be required for high-hazard chemicals and operations (e.g. work involving Restricted Chemicals, Particularly Hazardous Substances and Highly Reactive Chemicals, and other high risk research procedures).

A Risk Assessment is well-suited to novel operations in which the researcher is designing and planning an experiment. However, the Risk Assessment Tool can also be helpful in understanding risk when preparing for procedures that have an established SOP, varying parameters (e.g. scale, reagents, conditions), or in preparing to write new SOPs.

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