Here are Anne Churcher’s responses to questions about the change from a hazard to a risk management focus in the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, and the implications for councils and council-funded organisations. Anne Churcher ( has over 20 years’ experience as an internal auditor and risk manager. She provides risk management and health and safety advice to the health and local government sectors.

What is the difference between a hazard and a risk?

There is a subtle difference between the two concepts.  A hazard is a source of harm, whereas risks refer to the chance of something happening. For example, an uneven footpath is a hazard. However, the risk related to an uneven surface would be of someone tripping and breaking their leg. A risk assessment would consider the likelihood and impact of this happening, and this will be different on a footpath than on a staircase.

All hazards can be viewed as risks but not all risks are hazards.

Why do you think the concept of risk management has been included in the new Act?

I don’t know what was in the mind of the legislators and I’m certainly not a lawyer.  Using a risk management framework means going beyond identifying a physical hazard to considering what might happen and how likely it is. This may vary greatly in different organisations. Not all risks are created equal – so it allows the organisation to focus on those with the greatest likelihood of occurrence and/or those with the potential to cause the greatest harm. 

Are hazards mentioned at all in the Act?

Yes, the wording throughout the Act talks about “hazards and risks”.  Notably, the definition of a hazard in the Act narrowly defines a hazard as including “a person’s behaviour where that behaviour has the potential to cause death, injury, or illness to a person…”

What should organisations be thinking about?

An organisation needs to have a systematic, ongoing risk management programme. Risks must be identified, assessed and where necessary managed to an acceptable level. Processes need to be in place to monitor the key controls that ensure risks are kept at a tolerable level.

An organisation may wish to independently audit their existing health and safety or risk management programmes to identify any necessary improvements.  Many guidance and information resources are available online, including those on the WorkSafe and ACC websites.

What are the implications of these changes for local government generally?

Chief executives and senior managers with decision making roles have more personal responsibility for health and safety, with the potential for large personal fines, which can’t be insured against. Councillors are exempt from personal liability, but chief executives are not.

I expect most councils will have a risk management function in place that may already work closely with their Health and Safety team.  These may need some minor adjustments to ensure the council is meeting its health and safety obligations.

There is a requirement for organisations to work together to manage health and safety.  Council officers will need to work closely with their contractors, volunteers and funded community groups to ensure health and safety is managed.

What are the implications for small-medium sized organisations owned or funded by councils? 

The management team will need to check their policies and procedures meet the requirements of the new Act. It should just be a matter of tweaking what they already have, but the council which funds the organisation will want more assurance that health and safety risks are being well managed.

Small organisations with fewer than 20 workers, and which are not in a high risk sector or industry (as defined by the Act), don’t have to have health and safety representatives or a health and safety committee, but can choose to do so voluntarily.

Museums, art galleries, and council-funded events often involve a lot of volunteers. Most volunteers are also considered workers, within the context of the Act. See section 19 (3) for more details.

Councils will need to work together with organisations they fund to be sure that health and safety compliance is in place. This will include looking at their risk assessments and their policies.

This risk management responsibility will also apply when Council contracts out the running of an event. The general principle is that responsibility goes up to the chief executive. However, this has not yet been tested through the courts.

What steps can senior management teams and chief executives take to make sure their organisation is meeting the requirements of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015?

  • Review health and safety policies and procedures.
  • Ensure everyone understands their risk management responsibilities (which are clearer under the new Act).

How can councils assist the organisations they own or fund to comply with the Health and Safety at Work Act?

  • Run health and safety workshops for the organisations.
  • Have discussions with the organisations about their health and safety responsibilities.
  • Provide resources (eg templates) from the council’s health and safety department.